The Most Dangerous Country

September 1, 1999 Topic: Society Regions: Asia Tags: Cold WarCommunismMutual Assured Destruction

The Most Dangerous Country

Mini Teaser: A close look at North Korea, a country with a demonstrated capacity for coming up with unpleasant surprises.

by Author(s): Nicholas Eberstadt

The ROK's current policy toward Pyongyang is predicated on the
premise that enhancing economic contacts between the two Koreas will
modify the temperament of the DPRK and thus reduce tensions on the
Korean Peninsula. As Lim Dong-won, one of the policy's chief
architects, recently explained, "The objective of President Kim's
'Sunshine Policy' of engagement with North Korea is to coax the
Pyongyang leadership onto the path of reform and change."

North Korean authorities are well aware of that objective, and--as
best one can tell from their pronouncements--are thoroughly hostile
to it. At almost the same moment that Lim was outlining the rationale
of Seoul's "sunshine" policy, North Korean authorities rendered their
own verdict on "sunshine" and inter-Korean economic relations:

"Everyone knows that the puppets came forth with the sunshine policy,
the engagement policy, and reciprocity, blocking North-South economic
cooperation on every occasion. . . .

It is all too clear that nonsense being carried out by the puppets
regarding the issue of North-South economic cooperation is full of
schemes and sophistry. The well-grounded logic of patriotism is bound
to prevail over the treacherous logic."

Such a posture is not an aberration for DPRK diplomacy; on the
contrary, it conforms integrally with the basic logic of the North
Korean state.

Thus, for example, a spokesman for the General Staff of the North
Korean People's Army accused the United States of attempting "to
destroy our socialist system" through an "'appeasement strategy' to
induce us to 'reform' and 'opening'"--and that was by no means an
isolated official comment. If the North Korean leadership truly views
a more outward economic orientation as a threat to its vital
interests, the mere lifting of U.S. sanctions cannot be expected to
herald the awakening of an economic relationship between the two

To be more precise, the mere lifting of U.S. sanctions cannot be
expected to herald the awakening of a mutually beneficial economic
relationship between the two sides. For North Korea stands to gain
substantial and continuing benefits from the United States only if
Pyongyang can manage to formalize a one-sided economic relationship
with Washington.

Tribute-Seeking Diplomacy

For the DPRK, the United States is potentially a source for steady
flows of bilateral foreign aid--and much more. Washington, for
example, could assist in securing North Korean membership in the
World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and other multilateral
development institutions--organizations to which the DPRK could then
apply for grants, subsidized loans and other forms of concessional
finance. The United States could even facilitate bilateral payments
to North Korea from other countries: a settlement with Japan modeled
on the 1965 Tokyo-Seoul diplomatic normalization and indexed for
parity with it, for instance, could by now involve billions of

For North Korea, in short, the promise of an "economic relationship"
with the United States lies not in a broadening and deepening of
commercial ties, but in establishing itself as a permanent recipient
of government-to-government transfer payments.

At first glance it might seem that such a quest for financial aid
would be doctrinally inconsistent with the "self-reliance" that North
Korean juche extols. It is not. From its very founding, the DPRK has
been embarked on a perpetual hunt for subventions from abroad. During
the Cold War, it was the constant beneficiary of aid flows from
almost the entire "socialist camp": China, the USSR, and almost every
country in Eastern Europe were donors. Today, North Korea eyes the
capitalist world for aid--and the DPRK has no ideological problem
with pocketing payments from that reviled source. Juche diplomacy is
a tribute-seeking diplomacy--an inversion of the traditional Korean
role as tributary state in the old East Asian order--and all tribute
is good tribute. Tribute not only strengthens the domestic sinews of
the North Korean state, but also affirms its international status,
validates its international policies, and legitimizes its
international authority.

Tribute is overseas aid on terms established by the recipient, not
the donor. To be in a position to dictate just how foreign
beneficiaries should bestow their largesse, of course, requires
considerable and reliable leverage. How to obtain that leverage?
North Korea apparently believes that it can achieve it through a
carefully managed stratagem of military extortion. By establishing
itself as an ever more menacing international security threat, North
Korea evidently means to compel its neighbors--and, even better, its
enemies--to propitiate the DPRK with a constant and swelling stream
of financial gifts.

That is not simply surmise. North Korea's intentions have been
spelled out by its highest authorities. At the same September 1998
Supreme People's Assembly that elevated Kim Jong Il to the DPRK's
"highest post of state", North Korea's government officially embraced
a new policy objective: that of becoming a "powerful and prosperous
state" (Kangsong Taeguk). The precise meaning of that slogan was
articulated the following month in Pyongyang's Minju Choson, which
declared that "defense capabilities are a military guarantee for
national political independence and the self-reliant economy"; the
paper further insisted that "the nation can become prosperous only
when the gun barrel is strong" [emphasis added].

Credible military menace, in other words, is now at the heart of
North Korea's economic strategy--and of its very strategy for
survival. By extracting resources from the international community
through military blackmail, the North Korean leadership hopes to
stave off the officially dreaded specters of "reform" and "opening."
That international gambit (complemented and reinforced by acute
political and intellectual repression at home) offers what Pyongyang
takes as its best chance to steer its imperiled vessel of state
between the Scylla of political liberalization and the Charybdis of
economic collapse. As an endgame stratagem, this is not entirely
misbegotten. In fact, it may be said already to have enjoyed a
measure of tactical success.

The 1994 "Agreed Framework", after all, was only signed by Washington
because Pyongyang was poised to amass an arsenal of nuclear weapons.
In exchange for an ostensible freeze on that program, the United
States has been shipping the DPRK half a million tons a year of free
oil. In addition, the United States organized an international
consortium--the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization--to
construct for North Korea two "safe" light-water nuclear reactors at
an eventual cost of over four billion dollars; work on that project
is already under way. Amazing as this may sound, the DPRK appears to
be the largest recipient of American aid in all of East Asia.

North Korea has demonstrated, furthermore, that nuclear threats can
be manufactured for new, additional payments, irrespective of
previous understandings. After signing the Agreed Framework, the DPRK
began work on an enormous underground site whose observed
specifications closely matched those to be expected of a
surreptitious effort to continue a program for the development of
nuclear weaponry. After detecting that suspect facility, the United
States naturally demanded access to it. Subsequent high-tension
negotiations in late 1998 and early 1999 resulted in an American
pledge of over five hundred thousand tons of food aid to the
DPRK--and an almost simultaneous North Korean promise to allow an
American delegation to "visit" the site at Kumchang-ri.

At one particularly heated moment in the Kumchang-ri inspection
negotiations, a North Korean military official declared:

"'Surgical operation'-style attack and 'preemptive strike' are by no
means an exclusive option of the United States. . . . It must be
clearly known that there is no limit to the strike of our People's
Army and that on this planet there is no room for escaping the

He was alluding to North Korea's long-range missile capabilities,
whose latest advance was suddenly demonstrated in August 1998 by the
firing--without advance warning--of a multistage ballistic rocket
over the main island of Japan. (At this writing, North Korea is
threatening the imminent launch of a new and improved ballistic
missile--one that may at last be capable of reaching American soil.)
That missile program happens to be another instrument through which
Pyongyang intends to derive concessional payments from abroad.

In June 1998 North Korea's state media announced that the DPRK "will
continue developing, testing, and deploying missiles" as a matter of
unshakable principle--but proposed that "if the United States really
wants to prevent our missile exports, it should . . . make a
compensation for the losses to be caused by discontinued missile
exports." In talks with American counterparts in early 1999, North
Korean officials indicated that the "compensation" they had in mind
would start out at one billion dollars a year.

Weapons of mass destruction are now the financial and political
lifeline for that starving, decaying state. By the perverse logic of
this design North Korea's vital interests lie in magnifying the
deadly risks it can pose to the outside world. Perfecting weaponry
with ever greater reach and killing force correspondingly increases
Pyongyang's scope for exacting international tribute. Just as
business magnates in postwar South Korea strove to balloon their
concerns into hypertrophied conglomerates that would be "too big to
fail", so North Korea's leaders may be gambling that they can make
the DPRK "too lethal to fail."

Thinking About the End

BUT THAT VISION - if indeed it is the vision that shapes Pyongyang's policy - is an empty fantasy. The DPRK's extortionist diplomacy is utterly inadequate to the task of revitalizing the economic foundation on which the state rests. In a world where South Korean export revenues exceed two billion dollars a week, the sums that North Korea schemes to obtain are almost negligible. Under any circumstances, those sums would be insufficient to purchase a new industrial infrastructure, or to prepare a work force for manning it, especially when extensive commercial and technical contacts with the outside world are unacceptable. North Korea's endgame stratagem promises only to slow the country's relative and absolute economic decline, not to reverse it. At the very best, that game plan will only extend the ghastly, deepening twilight in which the regime is already enveloped.

Essay Types: Essay