Clausewitz famously offered the thesis that “war is a mere continuation of policy by other means.” (42) One can certainly add to this statement, without betraying or distorting the spirit of Clausewitz’s remark, that threats and rumors of war are also a part of this “policy by other means.” In the case of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, such policy takes the form of on the one hand, continued actual physical buildup of weapons of mass destruction, and, on the other hand, the threat to use these weapons against nations viewed as hostile to the DPRK, most particularly, South Korea and the United States. Whereas this has been a traditional policy approach of North Korea, exemplified by Kim-Jong Il, the assent of his son to the top leadership position in the DPRK has not seen a shift in this strategy, but arguably its radicalization. This is evidenced by recent developments such as the testing of the Kwangmyongsong-3 Unit 2 satellite and on 12 February 2013, North Korean officials declared that they had undertaken an underground nuclear test. (Hounshell) This is accompanied by continued aggressive discourse from official DPRK sources. Arguably, however, this current crisis is a continuation of previous diplomatic disputes and international hostilities between DPRK and South Korea and the United States. In other words, the fact that such a form of policy approach by the DPRK has continued for this long a period suggests that the U.S.’s foreign policy has failed to properly address the relations with DPRK: the DPRK grand strategy of relying on a military-tinged discourse and real military buildup in regards to the West has shown a failure of diplomacy of U.S. to shift the basic character of North Korean policy.
Obviously, this thesis depends on the notion that the current leadership of Kim Jong Un is merely continuing a policy approach initiated by his father Kim Jong Il. This is not to discount, however, the possibility that Un will take a different approach to this policy and perhaps even engage the opposition on a military level. Nevertheless, what is of importance here is to note that in so far as such a strategy has been employed at various times in the recent history of DKRP and American-South Korean relations, this means that to a certain extent this policy approach is viewed as successful by the DKRP, or in other words, becomes something to the effect of a standard policy approach in regards to the United States and South Korea. It is this standardization of a military based policy/a threat of military action policy/a weapons build up policy on the part of the DKRP that demonstrates that the United States have not been able to effectively counter this strategy on the level of policy: for certainly it is not in the United States’ interest to have the DKRP pursuing such a foreign policy line.
However, in order to understand the homogeneity of this policy, it is necessary to take a historical approach to the question, one that has resulted from a particular strategic relationship between South Korea and the Untied States on the one hand and North Korea on the other hand. Historically, this rupture between the two sides is a lingering effect of the Cold War. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the Korean war followed the Cold War pattern, in so far as the communist North, led by Kim Il Sung desired to create a greater communist Korean state through military action. As with other fronts in the Cold War, this action was ultimately dependent on the support the Soviet Union, as “Stalin finally gave the go-ahead for North Korea’s attacks, but only after Kim Il Sung gave his assurance that the war would be over in three days and that the United States would not intervene.” (Feffer, 31) What is arguably decisive from this historical context is that the Korean conflict did follow the standard Cold War pattern, such as in Viet Nam and in the Cuban missile crisis, with each respective superpower taking a respective side. The split of Korea into Northern and Southern zones in this sense is viewed as a continuation of the Cold War ideological split between communism and capitalism.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, North Korea was then viewed as a certain anomaly from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy. As Deputy Director of Central Intelligence John E. McLaughlin summarized this position “North Korea was a metaphor for some of the most extreme aspects of the Cold War and is today a metaphor for the most challenging aspects of the new world that has come in its wake.” (Suh, 1) Accordingly, although North Korea was viewed as part of the Cold War paradigm, it was construed by U.S. foreign policy as a radicalized element of this same paradigm: one in which the worst possibilities of the Cold War ideological opposition developed. Yet, nevertheless, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, the understanding of North Korea in terms of this “new world”, certainly should be considered valuable: there is no more Cold War and this means that there is no radical hostility between the U.S. and communist nations, as evidenced by improved relations between China and Viet Nam. However, U.S. policy arguably has viewed North Korea more in terms of this new world than in terms of the rapprochement possibilities opened up by the end of the Cold War paradigm in the form of the Soviet Union. This is most evidenced by the inclusion of North Korea within Bush’s infamous axis of evil speech of 2002, which grouped North Korea with Iran and Iraq, despite a lack of ideological connection or geopolitical connection between these nations. Rather, Bush was merely delineating a type of state that was deemed “rogue” in terms of American policy. North Korea essentially changed from merely another front in the Cold War, from the perspective of the United State, to an alien and rogue state: its communist ideology is irrelevant in regards to this rogue state status.
U.S. policy at the same time arguably in its constant changing of policy towards North Korea after the Cold War, U.S. policy can thus be said to mimic the classification of North Korea as one of these anomalous states: namely, the anomalous character of North Korea, a lack of clarification of what North Korea represents in U.S. States foreign policy and grand strategy is reflected in terms of ambiguous policy decisions towards the country. For example, in the late 1990s during the Clinton regime, U.S. Foreign policy pursed a strategy of rapprochement, such as when “former Secretary of Defense William Perry traveled to North Korea with a comprehensive proposal to increase outside assistance for its isolated and declining Stalinist regime in exchange for steps by the North to reduce its threatening military posture.” (Council of Foreign Relations, 1) This policy approach was termed the so-called “sunshine policy”, establishing “bilateral contacts with the North and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited North Korea.” (Dietrich, 150) Under the Bush regime of the new century, however, this policy approach was abandoned. At a visit to Washington in March 2001 by Kim Dae Jung, the South Korean foreign minister, “Bush told Kim that he did not support the sunshine policy and would take a tough position on North Korea’s actions.” (Dietrich, 150)
Arguably, it is by considering North Korea as such an anomalous state and not providing a consistent diplomatic discourse with the country that has contributed to North Korea’s taking the path of a weapons approach to policy and thus receiving international attention. Namely, in so far as North Korea has been reduced to the status of a rogue or fringe state, it is effectively cut off from diplomatic discourse: thus, following Clausewitz, the threat of war here becomes the continuation of policy by other means, simply because no other means have been made available to the North Koreans. The inroads made by “the sunshine policy” therefore were clearly annihilated by the more aggressive Bush policy, which had the direct effect of pushing the North Korean’s into a policy corner regarding strategy: the effect of weapons here becomes crucial for the continuation of policy by other means, without North Korea merely surrendering its will and simply acquiescing to the U.S. demands, a decision which from the realist standpoint of international relations could only be considered to be a foolish and naïve hope.
The apparent inroads of the sunshine policy and its destruction however do not mean that a return to a more open policy cannot be enacted in the contemporary era. At the same time perhaps this policy can most effectively be formulated by precisely viewing the North Korean state not in terms of a rogue state, but as a continuation of the remnants of the Cold War paradigm. In other words, in so far as the North Korean conflict is viewed in terms of the Cold War paradigm, or rather as an extension of the Cold War paradigm, the United States should perhaps view North Korea as merely another communist state subsisting after the Cold War instead of a rogue state. This is not a reckless thesis, in so far as we see clear precedents for this type of treatment in terms of the Republic of China and the Republic of Viet Nam, which also subsisted after the Cold War ideological divisions, but were approached in terms of rapprochement. Namely, a shift in policy away from understanding DPRK as a rogue state and towards understanding it as a remaining communist state after the collapse of the Soviet Union provides a new framework with precedent to developing policy in a non-violent manner. These communist states were viewed as weakened by the collapse of the Soviet Union, instead of as bellicose enemies: the weakened Communist bloc contributed to a U.S. policy approach that did not view the communist countries as explicit ideological and military threats, but as an opportunity to begin a new dialogue, one that was clearly in the favor of the U.S. because of this same collapse of the world significance of the communist ideology.
Conversely, it is possible to blame U.S. policy decisions on North Korea’s own bellicose rhetoric and some of its actions. But if this bellicose rhetoric is put into a proper context if North Korea is viewed from a Clausewitzian perspective, i.e., not having any diplomatic options because of U.S. foreign policy towards them. Accordingly, bellicose rhetoric does not become an a priori fact of North Korean foreign policy, but rather a temporary position engendered by overall global diplomatic relations with the DPRK and the general strategy towards the DPRK. Certainly, North Korea’s ideology, such as the self-sufficiency of juche, would seem on a surface level to contradict this thesis; but these ideological commitments are in no way definitive for North Korea, as evidenced by their reliance on China and on South Korea.
Furthermore, in viewing North Korea in terms of a model similar to China and Vietnam, China is arguably decisive to this approach itself. China’s boisterous trade relations show the superficiality of ideological distinctions in the current era as opposed to the Cold War era. At the same time, in regards to North Korea, “the primary strategic goal on which nearly all parties in China agree is stability. A policy has been developed that aims to achieve stability by emphasizing economic development in North Korea.” (Gill, 1) There is no explicit reason why the United States could not also take precisely such a policy approach, in so far as this would consider North Korea in terms of the model of remnants of the Cold War and open it to the international community.
Accordingly, two crucial errors can be identified in the American policy towards the DPRK, arguably errors which have forced the policy hand of North Korea into taking a more bellicose stance to the point that the threat of nuclear weapons now becomes apaprent: on the one hand, the U.S: has not viewed North Korea as a continuation of the Cold War ideological order, namely, existing as a remnant of this order, such as China and Viet Nam, and on the other hand, classifying North Korea as a general outlier, linking it up ideologically and in terms of policy decisions with countries such as Iran, instead of the post-Cold War communist countries. This approach, in other words, would be received by North Korea as their accepted by the United States, although as ideologically different: they would also have a clear historical precedent with which to see how the U.S. intends to conduct relations with them as evidenced by countries such as China and Viet Nam. U.S. relations with these latter countries, although at times tense, have greatly improved, as only evidenced by the massive trade between China and the U.S.: by following this model, North Korea would see how the U.S. intends to address them on the level of policy and thus alleviate some of their fears and lack of policy options which, once again, following Clausewitz, can be considered to contribute to their pursuit of a weapons based policy and nuclear weapons. In short, instead of viewing North Korea as an anomaly, North Korea should be viewed in terms of policy models and relations historically established vis-à-vis Asian countries that fell under the communist side of the Cold War split.
Clausewitz, Carl von. On War. New York: Wilder Productions. 2008.
Council on Foreign Relations. U.S. Foreign Policy Toward North Korea: Next Steps. Washington, DC: Council on Foreign Relations, 1999.
Dietrich, J.W. George W. Bush: Foreign Policy Reader. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2001.
Feffer, John. North Korea/South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis. Toronto, ON: Hushion House, 2003.
Gill, Bates. “China’s North Korea Policy: Assessing Interests and Influences.” United States Institute of Peace Special Report 283. Washington, DC: United States Institute of Peace, July 2011.
Hounshell, Blake. “How does America’s Nuclear Arsenal stack up against North Korea’s?” Foreign Policy. 13 February, 2013. Retrieved 20 April 2013 at http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2013/02/13/how_does_americas_nuclear_arsenal_stack_up_against_north_koreas Suh, Jae-Jung. “Making Sense of North Korea: Juche as an Institution.” In: J-J Suh (ed.) Origins of North Korea’s Juche: Colonialism, War, and Development. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2013. pp. 1-32.