Academic journal article The Journal of East Asian Affairs

Markets, Movies, and Media: The Growing Soft Power Threat to North Korea

Academic journal article The Journal of East Asian Affairs

Markets, Movies, and Media: The Growing Soft Power Threat to North Korea

Article excerpt


Recent years have seen growing calls within the United States for dramatic action to be taken against North Korea. This essay argues that the best course of action is instead a policy of strategic patience, one that would allow for the growing forces of popular culture, technology, and open markets to help weaken the hold of the Kim family in the North. Such soft power tools, it suggests, have already begun to penetrate the North, and stand a better chance of fostering changes within the nation than does more immediate and direct action.

Key words: North Korea, culture, markets, soft power


Few nations have proven as frustrating to american policymakers over the past half-century as has North Korea. The small country, despite its many economic, industrial, and military shortcomings and a generally poor standing with the international community, has nevertheless managed to frustrate the united states and its allies for decades, threatening, insulting and on some occasions even assaulting the world's superpower, and yet the Kim family dynasty remains largely unscathed. American leaders have long called for dramatic action against the north, dating back to the korean war, when a number of prominent voices went as far as to advocate for the use of atomic weapons.1 Such calls have waxed and waned since the war, but have recently been on the rise. American defense officials have demanded action.2 Political leaders have demanded action.3 Academics have demanded action.4 Think tanks have demanded action.5 And with the north's clear commitment to advancing its missile development and its nuclear program; its involvement in counterfeiting, smuggling, and international arms sales; its egregious human rights violations; and the presence of a relatively new and young leader whose grip on power might be more tenuous than that of his progenitors, one could certainly argue that the time is right for the united states and its allies to take more direct action against the north. Most recently, in the wake of the alleged DPrk cyber attack against sony Pictures, such calls for retribution exploded again; "the only way to prevent future attacks," wrote one columnist in the new republic, "is for foreign governments to know that attacks against u.s. targets-cyber or kinetic- will bring fierce, yet proportionally appropriate, responses."6

Despite the temptation for action, however, prudent policy requires just the opposite approach. the united states, in fact, needs not only to resist the urge to increase its anti-DPrk activities but should ignore the north's provocations, which, recent scholarship suggests, are largely designed to reinforce the regime's domestic standing rather than to alter the balance of power on the peninsula or threaten the united states.7 This does not mean that the world must resign itself to the perpetuation of this dangerous dictatorship. what it means instead is that the best weapon against the north appears not to be any official government effort but instead to be the less formal forces of capitalism and soft power-particularly the soft powe r of the korean wave emanating from below the 38th parallel- -whose penetration of the north offers for the first time a legitimate threat to the regime's grip on power. For decades, the Kim family has withstood economic sanctions, covert operations, military muscle, and hostile international alliances, and has always persevered. it is time to recognize that cultural and market penetration might succeed where these more dramatic efforts have failed.


The potential influence of such soft power approaches can easily be overstated, of course, and the virtually unprecedented degree of control the Kim family exerts, combined with the ideological uniformity that has historically dominated the nation, makes the north appear at first glance to be an unlikely place for a revolution driven by ideas rather than weapons. …

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