New York Times Book Review
Prolonging North Korea's life may actually increase the costs and the dangers of its inevitable demise.
New York Times Book Review
Wall Street Journal
- Aei Press
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North Korea's Unification Policy-
A Long, Failed Gamble
For over half a century, the political dynamics of the Korean peninsula have been framed by a single hastyand fatefuldecision: an August 1945 agreement between Washington and Moscow that Korea would be temporarily partitioned at the thirty-eighth parallel. That almost casual act proved to be the turning point for modern Korean history. Initially envisioned as a convenient arrangement to expedite the processing of an impending Japanese surrender, that "temporary" partition of Korea relentlessly hardened into a de facto and then a de jure division of the peninsula into two mutually hostile states.
With the establishment in 1948 of a Soviet-sponsored Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) in the northern half of the peninsula and a U.S.-supported Republic of Korea (ROK) in the South, a thousand years of political and administrative unity came to an official end for the Korean nation. At the same time, the political quest for Korean reunification may be said to have formally commenced.
The Imperative of Reunification
For the DPRK government, the reunification of Koreaon the DPRK's own termshas been an overriding policy objective since its very inception. The urgent priority accorded to the goal of unconditional unification has been fused into the fundamental documents of both party and state. The preamble to the charter of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) declares that "[t]he present task of the [KWP] is toensure the complete victory of socialism in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and the accomplishment of the revolutionary goals of national liberation and the people's democracy in the entire area of the country." And although the DPRK's seat of government has always been Pyongyang, the DPRK constitution from the outset stipulated that "the capital of the Democratic Republic of Korea shall be Seoul"a claim whose realization would require the prior removal of the ROK government.
From the standpoints of both power politics and ideology, the continued existence of a rival Korean state on a shared peninsula poses a threat to the legitimacy and authority, and thus to the security, of a utopian polity like the DPRK's. North Korean leading political figures have consistently extolled the ideal of a unified, independent, and socialist Korea with a quasi-religious fervor. There is no reason to doubt that in such a system of professed belief the consummation of the unification ideal would qualify as a crowning achievementor in political terms, as the ultimate guarantor of continued state existence.
For the entire North Korean project, then, virtue and necessity appear indistinguishable where reunification is concerned. The unification of the Korean nation under direct DPRK command appears from the beginning to have ranked as an absolute imperative of state, for reasons of glory and security alike.
Pyongyang's "Unification Policy":
Parameters and Evidence
North Korea has both accorded unification an extraordinarily high priority (even as compared with other states in divided nations) and approached its objective with means intuitively unfamiliar to the contemporary student of international relations. Indeed, in an era of "conflict resolution," "dialogue," and diplomatists, the North Korean government has unmistakably demonstrated its preference for the use of raw political force to achieve its objectives.
North Korea's infamous June 1950 surprise attack against South Korea, after all, was nothing if not a "unification policy": as documents from the Soviet archives and interviews with high-ranking DPRK émigrés have subsequently revealed, Kim Il Sung and other top North Korean leaders anticipated that their military offensive against the South would "unify" the entire peninsula in less than a month.
As we now know all too well, that unification initiative did not work as planned. Yet judged against the limits of the knowable as of early June 1950, the North Korean military assault that launched the Korean War was hardly a madman's gamble. War is always a risky business, but as prospective campaigns go, that one seemed to offer a high likelihood of success. Indeed, stripped of its Manichaean flourishes, Kim Il Sung's bitter assessment from the summer of 1950 is probably not very far from the mark:
Had it not been for the direct military intervention of the U.S. imperialists, we could have reunified our fatherland, and completely liberated the people in the southern half from the police state tyranny of the U.S. imperialists and the Syngman Rhee clique.
In attempting to evaluate North Korean unification policy, the degree to which the plan was predicated on absolute state secrecy (what the Soviets used to call maskirovka) is an aspect that deserves special comment. The initial success of the attack hinged largely on the fact that it took Seoul and Washington almost completely by surpriseand it took them by surprise because Pyongyang expertly concealed both its capabilities and its intentions up until the moment of truth. Less than a week before the actual invasion, for example, the DPRK was floating diversionary proposals containing new ideas for possible steps toward peaceful and voluntary unification with the South. North Korea's top leadership also seems to have subjected its own administrative and military apparatuses to a corresponding measure of strategic deception as the invasion plan progressed. John Merrill notes:
Even secret Central Committee documents that were seized by United Nations forces when they captured Pyongyang made "absolutely no mention of the forthcoming invasion." High ranking North Korean officers had "only the barest presentiment" of hostilities until the final orders were issued for the attack.
So thorough and complete was the regime's devotion to strategic secrecy, in fact, that an accurate and substantive record of the proceedings leading up to the June 1950 offensive may simply not existeven in Pyongyang.
The particulars of North Korea's approach to its "unification policy" thus pose a virtually unique analytical challenge to the conventionally trained student of foreign relations. While the past five decades offer voluminous documentation of the many proposals, counterproposals, schema, and suggestions that North Korea's leadership has advanced in its intermittent external dialogue on national reunification, there is good reason to believe that the diplomatic record itself may be a highly inadequate basis for evaluating the DPRK's true aims and strategies. Given the importance that North Korean leaders may place on misleading various external actors about their strategic intentions, moreover, one must treat the formal evidentiary record of officially revealed DPRK pronouncements and actions concerning reunification as problematic. When one considers just how little reliable information of any sort is available about that preternaturally secretive state, the formidable nature of the challenges involved in accurately describing the DPRK's unification policies becomes clear.
Divining North Korea's unification policy (or policies) therefore turns out to be an epistemological puzzle, in which the questions of "what we know and how we know it" loom large and often cannot be answered conclusively. Given the gaps, limitations, and uncertainties in the evidence at hand, we must recognize that it is possible to construct dramatically different readings of the events in question and substantially divergent interpretations of the North Korean approach to national reunification from 1948 to the present.
My exposition of North Korean unification policy will attempt to apply Ockham's razor to the problem of describing a central policy of a closed state that can only be perceived by outsiders through an empirical haze. Methodologically, the following narrative embraces two critical assumptions, both of which should be made explicit.
First, because the goal of reunification of the peninsula on its own terms appears to be deemed so vitally important by the North Korean government and to occupy so much of its attention and energy, the appropriate aperture for assaying North Korean state activity is one with the widest possible lens. Only a comprehensive look at the DPRK's general behavior can inform us adequately about North Korean reunification policy, precisely because pursuit of that overarching objective has required simultaneous pursuit of a fairly complex array of policies, some of which have no direct or immediate bearing on the putative object of Pyongyang's strategic attention.
Second, since "reunification" in official North Korean circles is apparently taken to mean the termination of the ROK regime and system, and the concomitant extension of the DPRK's authority over the full boundaries of traditionally Korean territory, the Marxist-Leninist paradigm of "correlation of forces" (what Soviet theorists called sootnoshenie sil), which provides a comprehensive but class-based perspective on programmatic struggle between opposing social and political systems, may be usefulto a degreein understanding and explaining the aims and expectations guiding North Korean strategy and behavior.
North Korea's Evolving Unification Policy
From its very first days of power, the DPRK had a clear and identifiable "national strategy" in which unification policy figured prominently. The thinking behind it can be succinctly summarized.
First, the paramount external objective of the regime is unification with southern Korea on the DPRK's terms. The Korean peninsula must be a single and national entity, organized under socialist principles and governed by the KWP.
Second, both South Korea's regime (the ROK) and its society are weak, divided, and corruptinherently unstable and certainly incapable of withstanding external pressure. The ROK may collapse under its own weight, or it may require an outside push. Either way, a strong North Korean military will be needed to step in to assist with unification at just the right moment.
Such a strategy is easily read into North Korean conduct in the DPRK's earliest years. In 1948 and 1949, as the DPRK was consolidating and developing its own domestic base, Pyongyang's inter-Korean rhetoric urged the repudiation (that is, the overthrow) of "the reactionary Syngman Rhee clique." When an uprising did occur (the Yosu rebellion, 1948-1949), Pyongyang eagerly expected history to take its "natural" course. But ROK forces contained and smothered the Yosu rebellion; the "Syngman Rhee clique" did not topple. As soon as it became clear to North Korea's leadership that it could not count on a speedy implosion of the South Korean system, North Korea began careful and systematic preparations to overwhelm the ROK with superior military force. Those preparations resulted in the surprise attack against South Korea in June 1950 that launched the Korean War.
For the DPRK, of course, the Korean War proved to be a disastrous miscalculation. To Pyongyang's surprise and dismay, the United States (and the United Nations) rushed to Seoul's defense. The North Korean regime, moreover, was very nearly overturned itself. Had Mao not come to Kim Il Sung's rescue in October 1950, the DPRK likely would have been doomed.
But the record of subsequent events suggests that the DPRK did not fundamentally alter its strategy or its view of unification in the wake of that calamity. On the contrary, the North Korean regime clung doggedly to its initial strategy for the succeeding decades, although that strategy was adapted to shifting circumstance and international situation.
Pyongyang's postwar "national strategy" and attendant unification policy unfolded in roughly three phases: gathering strength (1953-1962), going for broke (1962-1979), and dead end (1980 onward).
Gathering Strength, 1953-1962. Between the July 1953 armistice that suspended the Korean War and the Fifth Plenum of the Fourth KWP Congress in December 1962 at which a renewed emphasis on military buildup was formally embraced, the DPRK's formal diplomatic initiatives concerning unification with the South were episodic and for the most part desultory. Practically speaking, the government's "unification policy" during those years was focused domesticallyon North Korea itself.
America's dramatically renewed security commitment to the ROK and the seeming stability of the South Korean polity made reunification on Pyongyang's terms an untenable short-run option. So, instead, for the decade after the Korean War, North Korean leaders bided their time and concentrated on the reconstruction and development of the devastated domestic North Korean economy.
Even discounting inflated official claims, the growth of output between 1953 and 1962 seems to have been rapid and fairly steady. Prewar levels of production may have been reattained by 1955 or 1956; in the following six or seven years, total output may have doubledor better. Against voices in the leadership calling for greater attention to consumer needs, Kim Il Sung determined that the postwar North Korean economy would continue to favor heavily the producer goods essential to waging and winning wars.
North Korea's international policy played a pivotal role in the rebuilding and augmenting of the country's economy. North Korea secured concessional aid (grants and loans) from virtually the entire socialist camp of the 1950s: China, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and Warsaw Pact Europe. In addition, China agreed to leave a huge troop presence in North Korea through the late 1950s, thereby both relieving Pyongyang of burdensome military expenditures and providing a pool of manpower for local construction projects.
The results of North Korea's strategy during that period were, by and large, favorable and auspicious. North Korea was apparently winning its economic race with the South.
Going for Broke, 1962-1979. In April 1960 South Korea's President Rhee was driven from office in the face of student-led riots. He was replaced by a weak, caretaker government that was itself pushed from office a year later by a military coup led by General Park Chung Hee.
During that period of obvious political vulnerability in the South, Pyongyang failed to act. According to some reports, Kim Il Sung bitterly complained about that failure after the moment of opportunity had passed and decreed that North Korea would never be caught flat-footed again. That rueful resolution informed the North Korean unification policy and national strategy in the years between roughly 1962 and 1979. North Korea adopted a long-term "national strategy" that could pay off if such an opportunity arose again. In many respects, that was the period of greatest innovation and flexibility in North Korea's external policies. North Korea's distinctive approach to international relations, often alarming or exasperating to ally and opponent alike, for the most part skillfully protected and advanced international objectives and interests as defined by the county's leadership. By the end of that period, however, it had become apparent that none of the many gambles the state had wagered on its long-term unification strategy had actually worked.
Throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, North Korea established military buildup as a primary administrative objective of state policy, with awesome results. In the early 1960s, the Korean People's Army (KPA) manpower was thought to have been just over 300,000. By the late 1970s (when Washington and Seoul finally detected the buildup), North Korea's armed forces were apparently approaching the million mark, backed by a high and steadily rising share of economic output devoted to defense readiness. For a country of barely 20 million people, that amounted to something like total war mobilization on a permanent basis, a state of readiness perhaps unmatched in any other contemporary economy.
The purpose of that extraordinary military effort, of course, was to put Pyongyang in a position to seize the day when that day finally arrived. As the 1960s and 1970s progressed, prospects by some measures were surely encouraging. America's ability or willingness to defend Seoulperforce the first consideration in any North Korean calculations about unifying the peninsula on its own termsseemed to be eroding. The Vietnam debacle, the "Nixon Doctrine," the Carter administration's announcement that Washington would withdraw all U.S. troops from South Koreathose and other events could reasonably have been read as presaging the end of an era in the U.S.-ROK relationship. To Pyongyang's strategists, it may well have looked as if patience and vigilance would be duly rewarded.
Some elements of the DPRK's turn during the 1960s and 1970s to an aggressive pursuit of reunification on its own terms were of course visible to foreign observers. But strategic deception was also an integral aspect of that new phase of reunification policy, and the effort appears to have intensified in the early 1970s. In 1971, for example, North Korea reported that it had dramatically slashed its military budget (!); in 1972, a revised DPRK constitution located Pyongyangnot Seoulas the site of the capital; and during the years 1971-1973, for the first time in its history, the North Korean government carried out direct high-level talks with its South Korean counterparts and even signed a joint "Accord on Independent Peaceful Reunification of Korea."
In April 1975, howeverimmediately after Vietnam's unconditional military reunification on communist termsKim Il Sung, then visiting Beijing, declared:
If a revolution takes place in South Korea we, as one and the same nation, will not just look at it with folded arms but will strongly support the South Korean people. If the enemy ignites war recklessly, we shall resolutely answer it with war and completely destroy the aggressors.
To those familiar with the semiotics of North Korean official rhetoric, the Great Leader had tipped his hand.
If Kim's pronouncements in Beijing betrayed a certain impatience, one could readily understand that. For as was to become increasingly clear during the 1960s and 1970s, North Korea's unification strategy was a race against time.
North Korea's military machine might easily defeat South Korea's in a one-on-one contest, if and when the opportunity arose. But maintaining and financing the KPA was a growing burden and was undercutting North Korea's ability to engage in a long-term competition with the ROK. Just as spiraling military commitments (and the limits of stringent command planning) began to slow the pace of material advance in the North, the South (under former General Park's new government) entered into a phase of explosively rapid economic growth.
Unanticipated problems in Pyongyang's relations with its main allies, Moscow and Beijing, further complicated the "correlation of forces." The Sino-Soviet split, the Cultural Revolution, and the rise of Leonid Brezhnev (who seems to have harbored a personal loathing for Kim Il Sung) meant limited political and financial support for North Korea from those traditional patrons. Soviet and Chinese leaders had also deliberately limited their security commitments to the regime: in separate secret deliberations in 1969, for example, the Nixon administration had been assured by both Moscow and Beijing that they would not come to Pyongyang's aid if it provoked another war in the Korean peninsula.
North Korea's tactical response to those developments was quite imaginative. Beginning in the mid-1960s, the DPRK started to cultivate diplomatic relations with noncommunist countries: first "nonaligned states," then Western (the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). At the high-water mark of that diplomatic offensive, North Korea was discussing terms of cross-recognition with its perennial bête noire, Japan, but no deal was reached. In 1970, furthermore, North Korean foreign policy made a sharp turn toward Western markets for goods and capital. Between 1970 and 1975 North Korea contracted as much as $1.2 billion in hard currency loans, which it used for purchases of capital goods and grain from OECD countries. In 1964 over 90 percent of North Korea's trade turnover was with the Communist bloc; by 1974 North Korea's imports from OECD countries may have exceeded its imports from China, the Soviet Union, and Eastern Europe combined.
Those tactical thrusts, however, could not be sustained. Almost immediately, North Korea fell into arrearage on its hard currency debts, its commerce with OECD countries subsequently collapsed, and Pyongyang's refusal to make good on the loans poisoned trade relations with the industrial democracies. The overture toward noncommunist countries likewise proved to be self-limiting, as Pyongyang's new diplomatic acquaintances became familiar with North Korean distinctive official habits (for example, "self-financing" embassies supported by trafficking contraband).
Unorthodox as North Korea's approach to national unification may have been during the 1960s and 1970s, its game plan was by no means the gambit of a madman. High-risk and high-tension, to be sure: but the reading of the international scene that informed it was basically soundarguably even prescient. The United States would suffer serious foreign policy reversals in the 1960s and the 1970s; the credibility of Washington's commitment to Seoul would become an open question during and after the Vietnam era; the ROK was a politically fragile and potentially unstable polity (as was underscored in 1979 by the assassination of President Park at the hand of his own security chief).
But that strategy for national unification was at bottom a gamble, and luck does not smile on every gambler. In the mid-1970swhen the North had likely gained a decisive conventional edge over the South, and Washington's commitment to Seoul seemed to be shakyPresident Park's martial law regime still looked solid. And 1979when the DPRK probably still enjoyed a military advantage over the ROK, and the Park assassination brought turmoil to the surface in the Southjust happened to be the time when the American commitment to South Korea's defense was categorically and convincingly reaffirmed by the Carter administration's decision to cancel scheduled U.S. troop withdrawals from the ROK in July 1979. North Korea's strategy for national unification had missed its run, and North Korean leaders entered the 1980s grimly playing out a hand of bad cards they themselves had chosen.
Dead End, 1980 Onward. At the start of the 1980s, North Korea's "national strategy" for unification was at best a long shot. By the start of the 1990s, it sounded like a hopeless fantasy. Despite increasingly unpleasant international and domestic realities, North Korea's leadership seems to have made no substantive adjustments to its grand strategy, originally cast in the 1940s. Poorly adapted as it was for the world of the 1980s and 1990s, the North Korean leadership nevertheless clung to the strategy doggedly.
As the 1980s progressed, South Korea looked ever less vulnerable to an enforced unification with the North. In their economic race, the ROK had overtaken the DPRK by the beginning of the 1980s and left it in the dust. With the first genuinely competitive presidential elections held in Seoul in 1987, the success of the 1988 Olympics, and the Reagan administration assertive and explicitly anticommunist foreign and military policies, it was impossible to entertain the notion that the international community would regard the ROK as a problematic pariah government.
North Korea's response to those menacing changes was to continue and intensify the basic policies it had embraced in the 1960s and 1970s. Pyongyang avoided anything but reluctant and superficial diplomatic dialogue with the ROK throughout the 1980s. By contrast, North Korea's military buildup proceeded at full throttle. By 1987 some 1.25 million men or more may have been under arms. By that date, in fact, the KPA may have become the world's fourth-largest armed servicebehind only those of China, the Soviet Union, and the United States.
The costs of that commitment, however, were becoming too great for the DPRK's relatively small economy to bear. By the mid-1980s, according to Soviet bloc observers, the North Korean economy had entered into stagnation and was heading toward absolute decline. If their particular readings were overly pessimistic, they were also probably not far from the mark. Month by month, the economic balance in the Korean peninsula was shifting against Pyongyang and was exacerbated by the burden of its military buildup.
In the USSR, analogous problems in the contest with the United States had prompted leading military figuresincluding Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, at the time chief of the general staffto call for far-reaching economic reforms to revitalize the nation's economic base in general and to advance the "scientific-technical revolution" within the war industries in particular. North Korea, however, had no Marshal Ogarkov. Instead, under Marshal Kim Il Sung, North Korea in the 1980s foreswore virtually any alterations in its entrenched, cumbersome, and somewhat irrational central economic planning system. Without radical economic reform, long-term competition with or confrontation against South Korea would no longer be possible. Radical economic reform, however, would necessarily weaken the North Korean leadership's political and ideological controland might well set forces in motion that would eventually undermine the regime and the system.
Pyongyang attempted to circumvent that dilemma through a foreign policy finesse. In 1982 the death of Leonid Brezhnev opened the door to a warmer Soviet-DPRK relationship. Ominous shifts in the international "correlation of forces" had left Moscow eager for new security ties; Pyongyang, for its part, was willing to lean sharply toward Moscow in return for substantial economic and military assistance. On that basis, the two parties entered into a new arrangement highly beneficial to the DPRK.
Beginning in 1984, Moscow acquiesced in a ballooning trade imbalance with North Korea, an implicit subsidy reflecting Soviet willingness to ship progressively greater volumes of goods and military materiel to North Korea without compensating countershipments. Pricing commerce transacted in nonconvertible currencies is problematic, but at official current ruble/dollar exchange rates, Moscow's implicit subsidy to the North Korean economy would have exceeded $4 billion for the 1985-1990 period, and its military transfers to the DPRK during those years would have amounted to over $5 billion. Yet despite such successful diplomacy and despite the impact that the transfers had on North Korean military potential, the day of reckoning for North Korea's unification policy could only be postponed.
"Unification Policy" in the Jaws of Disaster
The sudden, dramatic sequence of worldwide events between 1989 and 1991 associated with what is now called "the end of the cold war" represented, for Pyongyang, a catastrophe of previously unimaginable scope and proportion. In practically every particular, the elements of that great reconfiguration of global politics constituted specific, tangible setbacks to the "correlation of forces" for Pyongyang in the Korean peninsula.
A simple recap of headlines from the 1989-1991 period will convey a sense of the new and far more perilous international environment Pyongyang abruptly faced.
In 1989 the socialist governments of Warsaw Pact Europe collapsed one after another; Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian ruler with a cult of personality analogous to Kim Il Sung's own, was deposed and murdered by his successors.
From 1989 to 1990 the Soviet Union entered into a terminal crisis: in its 1991 denouement, Soviet territory was broken into fifteen newly independent republics; the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was (briefly) declared illegal and officially suppressed; and the new government in Moscow came under the hand of a president who was avowedly procapitalist and pro-American.
In 1990 the world's sole remaining superpower, the United States, successfully organized a multinational expeditionary force under UN auspices to confront Iraq after its invasion of Kuwaitmuch as Washington had in 1950, after Pyongyang's invasion of the South.
Perhaps most portentously, the division of Germanythe other nation besides Korea partitioned by the settlements of World War IIcame to an end in 1989 and 1990. The population of the former East Germany enthusiastically embraced annexation by their erstwhile ideological rivals, and in their first free outing to the polls overwhelmingly supported West Germany's governing parties.
Ominous for Pyongyang as those great changes so obviously were, their immediate ramifications for North Korea's contest against the South were, if possible, even worse. With the mortal crisis and demise of the Soviet bloc, for example, Soviet/Russian military shipments to the DPRK all but ceased; trade turnover between Moscow and Pyongyang collapsed, and the implicit economic subsidy to the North Korean economy abruptly plummeted. To make matters worse, Chinanow no longer in competition for influence in Pyongyangevidenced growing impatience with North Korea's economic behavior. Despite the DPRK's mounting economic difficulties, the Chinese subsidy to the DPRK was steadily and dramatically reined in.
The end of the cold war brought about both economic and diplomatic dislocations on the DPRK. By early 1990, all the states of Warsaw Pact Europe (plus Mongolia) had extended diplomatic relations to Seoul. Under the banner of "new thinking," the USSR ostentatiously followed suit later that year. In August 1992, ChinaNorth Korea's last ally of any consequencefinally normalized its relations with the ROK (although by that point Beijing and Seoul already enjoyed a cordial working relationship, thanks in part to their flourishing commercial ties).
Deprived of its last elements of significant backing within the international community, North Korea was no longer able to block South Korea's entry to the United Nations. The ROK joined in 1991. But for Pyongyang, that was hardly the worst of it. North Korea's battle against the South for international legitimacy and support was suddenly far more precarious than it had ever been before. Whereas, for example, Seoul had ended up in 1992 with formal recognition from and strong ties to all four of the great powers of northern Asia (the United States, Japan, China, and Russia), Pyongyang maintained official relations with only twoand could not really claim to be on good terms with any.
The calamitous turn of international events that defined the "end of the cold war" for North Korean leadership prompted an unprecedented flurry of diplomatic activity by the DPRK. In 1990, 1991, and 1992, Pyongyang conducted a series of substantive talks with Tokyo on the topic of cross-recognition to explore the possibility that Moscow's new ties to Seoul might be countered by developing the DPRK's relations with Japan. In 1991, reversing its long-standing position that Korea should only have a single, true representative accepted into the forum, the DPRK agreed to join the United Nations at the same time that the ROK was admitted to membership.
North Korea also surprised foreign governments with intriguing hints that its Weltanschauung might finally be changing. In September 1991 the DPRK foreign minister was quoted in an interview with Jane's Defense Weekly as stating that "Marxism cannot be applied to present-day realities"; the following year, it was revealed abroad that a newly revised DPRK constitution dropped long-standing references to Marxism-Leninism as a philosophy guiding the state. But perhaps the most interesting activities were in the "inter-Korean dialogue" itself.
The years 1990-1992 witnessed a progression of state-to-state contacts that were extraordinary for the divided Korean peninsula. Those included eight official meetings at the prime ministerial level; the formalization of an agreement on "Reconciliation and Non-Aggression" and the initialing of a DPRK-ROK document on mutual nuclear inspections; and a five-day visit to the ROK by a DPRK vice premier who toured South Korean industries and discussed avenues of possible economic cooperation.
That burst of inter-Korean comity seemed to constitute a radical departure from all previous DPRK policy toward the South. Understanding the underlying motivations and intentions is therefore critical; unfortunately, those remain unclear to outsiders.
It seems unlikely that those overtures represented an effort at strategic deception, at least of the traditional variety: military unification was a less plausible option for the DPRK than ever before in the wake of the American-led Persian Gulf War in January 1991. It is possible that those contacts with the ROK betokened a reconsideration of North Korea's reunification policy at the highest levels of leadership; alternatively, it is possible that North Korean leaders were simply groping in the darkness of a new era that their ideology failed to illuminate. In any case, that episode of experimentation and seeming gestures of rapprochement came to a close at the end of 1992, when the DPRK reverted to more familiar patterns of international and inter-Korean behavior.
By 1993 North Korea's reunification policy was irrelevant, given the conditions at hand: the pressing problem was now regime survival. Pyongyang's approach to that problem was almost entirely tactical in nature and revealed a striking admixture of painful temporizing and bold maneuver. On the one hand, the North Korean leadership resolutely refused to experiment with any serious economic reforms and only dabbled in ineffectual foreign investment legislation. By late 1993 Pyongyang officially announced that its economy was in a "grave situation"but still indicated no plausible design for improving its prospects.
The reasoning behind that posture was clear enough: almost from its start, Kim Il Sung had diagnosed the crisis of Soviet bloc socialism as an affliction transmitted from "capitalism by paralyzing the people's revolutionary consciousness through ideological and cultural infiltration." North Korea's leaders, correspondingly, were unwilling to expose their system casually to the grave risks of such contamination.
Kim Il Sung's death in July 1994 did not seem to alter the DPRK's stem resistance to economic experimentation. With the Great Leader's death, North Korea's leading personality became Kim Il Sung's son and heir-designate, Kim Jong Il. While little can be said categorically about the younger Kim's inclinations, his writings and pronouncements arguably evidence, if anything, even less enthusiasm for liberalized economic policies than those of his late father.
Under its current policy regime, North Korea's ability to earn hard currency is extremely limited. Sales of hard currency goods may generate roughly $1 billion a year in exports for North Koreaas compared with South Korea's total 1998 export revenues of over $130 billion. Unable to purchase the foreign products its facilities require just to stay in operation, Pyongyang's ability to maintain its already diminished production levels without outside help is questionable. The emergence of an officially acknowledged food crisis in the DPRK in 1995a crisis that Pyongyang as yet has been manifestly incapable of resolvingwould seem to corroborate such suspicions. One can only infer that the prospect of economic deterioration is less unsettling to North Korean leadership than the vision of far-reaching systemic reforms.
In contrast to the continuing stasis in economic and domestic policy in the early 1990s, North Korea made a series of shrewd and daring moves in the diplomatic arena. Most of those centered on a nuclear drama, unveiled by Pyongyang in early 1993 and carried into 1994. By threatening to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, hinting that it might already have succeeded in developing an atomic bomb, and indicating that it would soon be capable of producing half a dozen or more nuclear devices each year, Pyongyang generated a wave of international alarm. Through successive rounds of skillful, high-tension negotiations with the United States, South Korea, Japan, the UN International Atomic Energy Agency, and other parties, the DPRK finally arrived at a complex understanding with Washington (the October 1994 "Agreed Framework") whereby North Korea's program for producing fissile materials would be put on hold and eventually inspected and dismantled in return for which an American-led consortium would provide ten years of heavy oil deliveries gratis and also construct two "safe" nuclear reactors in the DPRK at an estimated cost of at least an additional $4 billion.
That understanding satisfied a multiplicity of North Korean security, foreign policy, and economic goals. Perhaps most important, it heralded the possibility of a completely new and vastly improved relationship with the region's strongest power, the United States, and seemed further to promise that North Korea might be able to draw substantial long-term concessional aid from three fresh new sources: Washington, Tokyo, and Seoul. Yet even that brilliant tactical success did not rescue North Korea from the ominous fundamentals of its new positionmuch less restore it to one in which it could pursue its long-cherished but now inoperable unification strategy.
North Korea's leadership needed to secure steady transfers of aid from abroad both to keep its ailing economy from deteriorating further and to avoid the systemic risks posed by far-reaching liberalization. No conceivable volume of external financial assistance, though, could restore the economic balance in the peninsula to the already highly unfavorable differential of the late 1980s. Moreover, aid of any magnitude presupposed major South Korean participation. That, of course, would invite precisely the sorts of cultural and ideological contamination that Pyongyang had judged to be lethal to Soviet bloc socialism. By the same token, while North Korea urgently sought American and Japanese diplomatic recognition, any substantive deepening of relations with those two countries would in practice likely lead to contacts and pressures intrinsically subversive of urisik sahoejuui (the DPRK's officially proclaimed "own style of socialism").
It became clear as the late 1990s progressed that, for all the deftness of its external maneuvers, North Korea was caught in a tightening vise. In 1995, when the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization established through the "Agreed Framework" began its deliberations, for example, Pyongyang insisted that the promised light-water nuclear reactors not be South Korean; Seoul, which was to pay for most of the project, stated that there would be South Korean reactors or no reactors at all. Rather than jeopardize its gains from the framework, Pyongyang acquiesced in the ROK's demand. Similarly, when food shortages in 1995 prompted the DPRK to issue an unprecedented appeal for emergency food aid, South Korea donated 150,000 tons of rice. But when North Korea consumed the grain without amending its behavior toward the ROK, Seoul ceased its own grain shipments and successfully dissuaded other Western governments from extending more than token amounts of relief for that year.
Even military brinksmanshipa tried-and-true instrument in the DPRK diplomatic tool kitseemed to be losing its former effectiveness. When in April 1996 Pyongyang escalated its campaign to replace the 1953 armistice with a peace treaty between the DPRK and the United States by sending unauthorized units of KPA troops into forbidden areas of the demilitarized zone, Washington acted as if it were unconcerned to keep Pyongyang diplomats eager to resolve the "crisis" on hold. In South Korea, those same tactics seemed to contribute to the upset victory in local elections of the ruling party and to a still less accommodationist posture toward the North on the part of its leadership. When a DPRK submarine ran aground on ROK territory in the fall of 1996, Seoul insisted onand obtainedan unprecedented formal "statement of regret" from Pyongyang.
North Korea's leaders, of course, were past masters of extracting gains through a diplomacy of military menace. As the late 1990s progressed, Pyongyang demonstrated that it was still quite capable of utilizing those tried-and-true techniques.
In the early summer of 1998, after years of denying the fact, the DPRK suddenly acknowledged publicly that it was selling abroad the same missiles it was producing at home and warned the United States that if it "really wants to prevent missile exports it should ... make a compensation." Later that summer, without advance warning, the DPRK launched a newly perfected, multistage ballistic rocket over the main island of Japan. That summer also witnessed the onset of a dispute between Pyongyang and Washington about inspection of a huge underground complex in Kumchang-ri that American officials suspected was being built to advance the country's nuclear weapons program (despite a seeming understanding under the "Agreed Framework" that all such activities in North Korea were to be suspended from October 1994 onward). Over the following months, as American diplomats insisted on access to that "suspect site," Pyongyang's resistance mounted, and its rhetoric grew increasingly bellicose. At one point, there was even an official threat to "blow up the U.S. territory as a whole" over that confrontation. But as North Korean leadership may well have anticipated, those manufactured crises ultimately resulted in economic rewards for the DPRK. Less than two weeks after the surprise rocket launch over Japan, American officials affirmed that the United States would commit 300,000 tons of food aid to the DPRK and declared that the rocket issue should not be allowed to derail the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization. And just before the DPRK agreed in early 1999 to an eventual inspection of the site in question, the United States promised North Korea 600,000 tons of further food aid.
That U.S.-DPRK dynamic prompted critical observers to comment that "North Korea knows the code to Uncle Sam's credit card." Yet, at the end of the day, the grim fact facing Pyongyang was that its extortive stratagems were good for small charges only. The resources North Korea managed to secure through confrontational posturing amounted in 1997 and 1998 to no more than a few hundred million dollars a year. Such sums were manifestly insufficient to arrest the continuing decline of the domestic economy or to bring an end to the country's continuing hunger crisis. They were, almost certainly, not even adequate to maintain the strength of the country's conventional military forces, until then the prime instrument of North Korea's own chosen unification policy; although still imposing, that enormous apparatus had begun to age and decay, thereby steadily devaluing its utility. North Korea's tribute-oriented international policy, in short, may have been adequate to finance the bare minimum of functions essential to the operation and existence of the state, but the policy was utterly incapable of addressing the DPRK's grave and mounting systemic troubles, much less redressing the increasingly tilted "correlation of forces" between the two governments claiming sole authority over the entire Korean domain.
The December 1997 election of Kim Dae Jung as president of the Republic of Korea marked a furtherand significantsetback for Pyongyang in its inter-Korean contest. Although some commentary had speculated that North Korea's leadership might favor an electoral victory by that perennial South Korean opposition candidate, the actual consequence of inaugurating Kim Dee Jung was to limit still further the DPRK's room for maneuver. Kim's very accession to the presidency demonstrated just how far political liberalization had proceeded in the Southand in fact spoke to the voting public's confidence in the strength and dynamism of the evolving ROK political system. Moreover, the elevation in the South of the longtime political prisoner and human rights activist unavoidably invited comparisons with the political process and human rights situation in the North; the automatic result was to bump North Korea's perceived international legitimacy down by yet another rung. North Korea's standard invective against South Korean leadership seemed ludicrously miscast now that a former prisoner of conscience was in charge of the country. And with Kim Dae Jung's inaugural declaration that "we do not have any intention to undermine or absorb North Korea," the officially tendered justifications for Pyongyang's stalwartly hostile posture toward Seoul became yet more remote and implausible. Indeed, the first year of the Kim Dae Jung administration offered the world the extraordinary spectacle of a South Korean government earnestly striving to engage the North in confidence-building dialogue for a reconciliation, and a North Korean government just as resolutely attempting to avoid what it apparently regarded as the peril of official bilateral contact with the South.
Whatever dreams its regime may continue to cherish about a unification of Korea on DPRK terms, the inescapable reality of the 1990s is that North Korea can no longer take even state survival for granted. The last reunification proposal offered by Kim Il Sung before his death, the "10-Point Program of Great Unity of the Whole Nation for Reunification of the Country" of April 1993, suggests as much. The tenth point in that program is particularly telling: "Those who have contributed to the great unity of the nation and to the cause of national reunification should be highly estimated." Subsequent official broadcasts elaborated on the point: "What is important in appraising people is, above all, to grant special favors to those who have performed feats for the great unity of the nation and the reunification of the country, patriotic martyrs and their descendants." In a departure from the form and substance of all previous utterances on reunification, the North Korean regime appeared in that instance to be urging South Korea to agree to some sort of securité de passage to cover North Korea's leadersand "their descendants."
The Long Goodbye
How, on balance, do we assess North Korea's long, determined quest for national reunification? One verdict that comes to mind is Samuel Johnson's famous remark to Boswell about a certain person "[who has had] but one idea in his entire lifeand that idea was wrong." Would such a judgment be too harsh for Pyongyang's reunification policy?
Possibly so, for as we have seen, the DPRK's approach to achieving unification of the peninsula on its own terms was not only feasible, but arguably promising, for some period of time. The fact that Pyongyang's approach to settling its unification problem diverges so sharply from the contemporary norms of accepted behavior in international statecraft does not by itself indicate that the DPRK's strategy has been doomed to failure.
Nevertheless, deep and fundamental flaws can be identified in that central North Korean policy. Perhaps most important, it appears to have been based on an extended, severe misreading of South Korean realities and potentialities. North Korea misjudged not only critical events within the ROK but also long-term developments. The DPRK worldview did not prepare the North Korean leadership for the possibility that the impoverished, dependent South Korean autocracy of the 1950s and early 1960s could evolve into the affluent, politically open, and popularly supported system the ROK was to enjoy by the early 1990s.
By the same token, the DPRK appears to have signally misjudged the importance of economic performance for its long-term prospects of reunifying Korea on its own terms. Marxist-Leninist "correlation of forces" analyses may be faulted for often slighting the economic element in the competition between opposing systems; North Korean strategy may be criticized on the same grounds.
Finally, like communist groups in and out of power in most of the rest of the world, North Korean leaders badly misjudged the strength and stability of the Soviet bloc. North Korea's ill-fated decision to lean toward the Soviet Union at the very moment that the Soviet system was coming undone is partly responsible for the desperate straits in which the DPRK finds itself today.
In the late 1990s, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is a state that appears to be functioning on a sort of "life-support" basis by tactically negotiating provisional extensions for its lease on life. Given the nature of the North Korean state, those negotiations are highly circumscribed. A more extensive commercial interaction with South Korea, for example, might help resuscitate the North Korean economy, but DPRK leaders, apparently fearing that such contacts might destabilize their system, have backed away from that option. Far-reaching economic reforms have been foresworn for apparently the same reason.
Despite the often underappreciated shrewdness of its leadership, North Korea is a state with diminishing control over the events that shape its future. The cherished goal of a Korean unification may be drawing closerbut it is not likely to be a reunification on DPRK terms.
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