Academic journal article North Korean Review

North Korea's Place in the U.S. Presidency: Ethos and Moral Judgments

Academic journal article North Korean Review

North Korea's Place in the U.S. Presidency: Ethos and Moral Judgments

Article excerpt

Introduction: A Relationship of Their Own

The U.S. and North Korea share a unique relationship, and it is loaded with mutual distrust and strategic imperatives. Mutual distrust would drive them to dismiss each other, and yet the regional security imperatives keep them entangled. Pyongyang's 2006 underground test qualifies North Korea as a nuclear power, and its subsequent missile launches make the two nations' relationship ever more tenuous. Nuclear Pyongyang is a sore reminder of Washington's failure in its nonproliferation policy, while the intricacies of bilateral relations go beyond the conventional security realms. Pyongyang's human rights records make it more complicated.1 The U.S. is under mounting pressure from Japan on North Korean human security threats, and from the international community on the plight of refugees. In order to understand Washington's stance towards Pyongyang, this article situates the Korean Peninsula within the American presidency.

A perspective entails positionality, which, in turn, reflects upon identity, interests and priorities.2 When observing Washington, D.C., from the sole focus on Northeast Asia, the evolution of North Korean problem can be puzzling.3 If we, however, reverse the directionality from Washington to the global affairs, Pyongyang ceases to be the sole problem, even if still one of many problems. The reversed positionality from the White House to the Korean Peninsula helps us weigh the multitude of competing agendas in the global setting. Had North Korea not been equipped with deadly weapons of mass destruction, it would have earned contempt or, at best, dismissal from the American leadership for its totalitarianism. This article, an inductive analysis of narratives, explains why the current nuclear impasse has emerged at the end of the Clinton administration and how the Bush administration chose to dismiss the Kim Jong Il regime as a legitimate counterpart.

An Underexplored Terrain

Given the respective strengths of the four main international relations (IR) theories (e.g., realism, liberalism, institutionalism and constructivism), the human factor is often missing in foreign policy studies.4 This paper explores the probable causal association between the top leaders' belief systems and policy priorities by looking at the Clinton and Bush administrations' attitudes toward the Korean Peninsula. The rationality assumption in realist tradition does not permit the gray area where a top leader's worldviews interact with national agenda setting. Political leaders are assumed only to maximize national interests within the Hobbesian framework, and the murky reality entailing hard-to-quantify variables such as belief system is hardly factored in. The liberalist tradition, on the other hand, focuses on interests of actors leaving the room for ideological influence in the decision-making process. Institutionalism, however, falls short on considering individual human volition because actors are to play the already prescribed role within limited institutional framework. Noninstitutional considerations such as cultural affinity and shared worldviews are relegated to the periphery. Finally, constructivism vindicates the importance of identity politics, but the debates are mostly at the national (e.g., Muslim nation-state) and group level (e.g., ethnic politics). The top leaders' propensities are rarely an issue for its macro- and mezzo-units of analysis. This article looks into a less chartered IR territory by linking the top decision-makers' ethos to foreign policy behavior.5

This paper is not an attempt to reduce national interests to elites' personal propensities. It instead tries to show an understudied dynamic in the foreign policy process. Students of diplomatic history often focus on the official records of national history by putting personal and unofficial narratives to their disadvantage. Doing it otherwise self-evidently risks trivializing the grandeur of national history making. …

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