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

If I am correct that the DPRK is slated for still further decline, and correct as well about the logic of the North Korean system, the implications for the international community are ominous indeed. More than any other state in the current global order, the DPRK makes its living not through the export of goods and services, but through the methodical export of strategic insecurity. Furthermore, the DPRK's vital interests would be grievously and irreparably injured if its government were ever to acquiesce in what the international community desires very most: first, a real and permanent halt to its quest for nuclear weaponry; second, a demobilization of its program for perfecting long-range missiles; and third, the establishment of genuinely peaceful relations with the ROK.

That is not to say that Pyongyang might not some day commit to one or more of those courses. Leaders can miscalculate, and, often enough, do. But if North Korea's rulers - as they have so often stated - are resolved not to follow Gorbachev gently into the night, then we can only conclude that every extension of the regime's tenure will be marked by a corresponding improvement in Pyongyang's ability to inflict injury and provoke instability beyond its borders.

And yet, as North Korea fails, the international community moves to intervene with support. For Pyongyang, that is a highly satisfactory arrangement. It is less clear why it should be satisfactory to other governments. Wittingly or not, the principal powers with which North Korea interacts have fallen into a de facto policy of appeasement toward Pyongyang.

As a diplomatic approach, appeasement has recorded some successes at different junctures over the course of history, but only when the objects of that policy were capable of, and disposed toward, being appeased. In the DPRK, there is every reason to believe that the world community is dealing with an insatiable state.

Why, then, is appeasement taking place? If one were utterly cynical, one might say that this is easy enough to explain: weak governments have a predilection for appeasement policies, and the governments with which North Korea today contends are, in the main, weak ones. That conclusion cannot be dismissed out of hand, for the fact of the matter is that North Korea currently faces a most unusual international alignment. The governments crucial to its international calculations have always been China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. Since the end of the Cold War, the character of each of those governments has changed perceptibly - in some cases, radically. By comparison with their predecessors, the administrations now presiding in Beijing, Tokyo, Moscow, Seoul and Washington are either less capable of mobilizing resources to project national will abroad, less oriented toward international (as opposed to domestic) priorities, or less inclined to focus attention on long-term problems - or, in some cases, all of those things. This extraordinary conjuncture has doubtless played to North Korea's advantage.

A kinder analysis might ascribe the current appeasement of the DPRK less to a failure of nerve than to a failure of imagination. Conceptualizing the Korean Peninsula within a two-state framework almost ineluctably leads international policymakers to guard the North Korean system against its own decline - even though such support may ultimately worsen the security threats that those policymakers can expect to face in the future. For the stability and prosperity of Northeast Asia - and regions far beyond - it is therefore imperative for concerned governments to get out of the intellectual sand trap from which a Korean Peninsula without the DPRK cannot be seen. We must begin to think carefully about the implications, problems and opportunities inherent in a post-DPRK Korea.

This is not an impossible exercise. One can easily envision a less troubled Korean Peninsula than the one we know today. Korean unification under a peaceable, politically free, market-oriented system - a system much like South Korea's today - would contribute immeasurably to political stability and economic prosperity, not only in Northeast Asia but well beyond it.

To be sure, we can expect arduous challenges and serious obstacles to any effort to construct a post-DPRK architecture for the Korean Peninsula. But prepared governments may have ways to mitigate them or circumvent them altogether. Indeed, the costs and difficulties attendant in establishing a successful post-North Korean order in Northeast Asia will very likely climb the longer the current regime remains in power.

Throughout its tenure, the DPRK has demonstrated its continuing capacity to surprise, usually in unpleasant ways. In the period ahead, more such surprises undoubtedly await us. They will be distinctly less unpleasant if our citizens and statesmen do not take the end of North Korea to be an unimaginable proposition.

Nicholas Eberstadt is a researcher with the American Enterprise Institute and Harvard University. His latest book is The End of North Korea (AEI Press, 1999), from which this essay is adapted.

Essay Types: Essay