North Korean Foreign Relations in the Post-Cold War World
Authored by Dr. Samuel S. Kim. | April 2007
Any attempt to understand North Korean foreign relations in the post?Cold War world is to be confronted with a genuine puzzle of both real-world and theoretical significance. On the one hand, in the post?Cold War era North Korea?officially known as the Democratic People?s Republic of Korea (DPRK) ?has been seen by many as a failed state on the verge of explosion or implosion. On the other hand, not only has North Korea survived, despite a rapid succession of external shocks?the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the end of both the Cold War and superpower rivalry, and the demise of the Soviet Union?all on top of a series of seemingly fatal internal woes, including spreading famine, deepening socialist alienation, and the death of its founder, the ?eternal president? Kim Il Sung. But with its nuclear and missile brinkmanship diplomacy, it has become a focus of regional and global prime-time coverage.
Paradoxically, Pyongyang seems to have turned its weakness into strength by playing its ?collapse card,? driving home the point that it is anything but a Fourth World banana republic that would disappear quietly without a big fight or a huge mess, a mess that no outside neighboring power would be willing or able to clean up. In fact, not only has North Korea, the weakest of the six main actors in the region, continued to exist, but it has also catapulted itself to the position of primary driver of Northeast Asian geopolitics through its strategic use of nuclear brinkmanship diplomacy. From this transformed geopolitical landscape emerges the greatest irony of the region: today, in the post?Cold War world, North Korea seems to have a more securesovereignty itself, while posing greater security risks to its neighbors, than has ever been the case in recent history.
The starting premise of this monograph is that for all the uniqueness of the regime and its putative political autonomy, post?Kim Il Sung North Korea has been subject to the same external pressures and dynamics that are inherent in an increasingly interdependent and interactive world. The foreign relations that define the place of North Korea in the international community today are the result of the trajectories that Pyongyang has chosen to take?or was forced to take?given its national interests and politics. In addition, the choices of the North Korean state are constrained by the international environment in which they interact, given its location at the center of Northeast Asian geopolitics in which the interests of the Big Four (China, Russia, Japan, and the United States) inevitably compete, clash, mesh, coincide, etc., as those nations pursue their course in the region. North Korea per se is seldom of great importance to any of the Big Four, but its significance is closely tied to and shaped by the overall foreign policy goals of each of the Big Four Plus One (South Korea). Thus North Korea is seen merely as part of the problem or part of the solution for Northeast Asia.
On the basis of historical and comparative analysis of the conduct of North Korean foreign policy, especially the turbulent relations with the Big Four plus the relationship with South Korea, the main objective here is to track, explain, and assess North Korea?s foreign policy behavior in the post?Cold War and post?Kim Il Sung era, using a behavior-centered approach. What is most striking about post?Cold War North Korean foreign policy is not the centrality of the Big Four but rather the extent to which the United States has figured in the major changes and shifts in Pyongyang?s international behavior. North Korea has sought and found a new troika of life-supporting geopolitical patrons in China, South Korea, and Russia, and also a new pair of life-supporting geo-economic patrons in China and South Korea, even as America?s dominant perception of North Korea has shifted significantly from that of a poor nation in need of a life-support system to that of an aggressive nation representing a mortal threat. As if in fear of the DPRK?s ?tyranny of proximity,? however, all three of North Korea?s contiguous neighbors?China, Russia, and South Korea?have tended to be reluctant to support Washington?s hard-line strategy.
Although the future of North Korea is never clear, the way the outside world?especially the Big Four plus Seoul?responds to Pyongyang is closely keyed to the way North Korea responds to the outside world. North Korea?s future is malleable rather than rigidly predetermined. This nondeterministic image of the future of the post?Kim Il Sung system opens up room for the outside world to use whatever leverage it might have to nudge North Korean leaders toward opting for a particular future scenario over another less benign in the coming years.
To understand North Korean foreign relations in the post?Cold War world is to be confronted with a genuine puzzle of both real-world . On the one hand, in the post?Cold War era North Korea?officially known as the Democratic People?s Republic of Korea (DPRK) ? has been seen by many as a failed state on the verge of explosion or implosion. This dire assessment stems from the troublesome fact that the country has encountered a rapid succession of external shocks?the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the end of both the Cold War and superpower rivalry, the demise of the Soviet Union and international communism, Moscow-Seoul normalization, and Beijing-Seoul normalization?on top of a series of internal woes, including the death of its founder, the ?eternal president? Kim Il Sung, a downward spiral of industrial output, food/energy/ hard currency shortages, shrinking trade, and deepening systemic dissonance, with the resulting famine killing at least 3?5 percent of the population in the latter half of the 1990s.
Thus for the first time since the Korean War, the question of the future of North Korea?whether it will survive or collapse, slowly or suddenly?has prompted a flurry of debates and has provoked many on-the-fly pundits and soothsayers of one kind or another in the United States. Many of these predicted that in the wake of Kim Il Sung?s death, the DPRK would collapse within 6 months; or that in less than 3 years, Korea would have a German-style reunification by absorption.
The popularity of this ?collapsist? scenario also has been evident in the policy communities of some of the neighboring states. In 1994 and 1995, for example, South Korean President Kim Young Sam jumped on the collapsist bandwagon when he depicted North Korea as a ?broken airplane? headed for a crash landing that would be followed by a quick Korean reunification. The specter of collapse has even prompted behindthe-scenes efforts by the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to coordinate contingency planning with South Korean and Japanese allies. At a summit meeting held on Cheju Island in April 1996, leaders of South Korea and the United States jointly agreed to promote a twoplus-two formula, the Four-Party Peace Talks, even as they privately predicted that the collapse in the North could come as soon as 2 or 3 years.1 Such endgame speculation on the future of post?Kim Il Sung North Korea has become a favorite diplomatic sport.2
At the turn of the new millennium, which many predicted North Korea would not survive to see, not only does the socialist ?hermit kingdom? still exist, but with its nuclear and missile brinkmanship diplomacy, it has become a focus of regional and global prime-time coverage. The new consensus in South Korean and American intelligence communities in early 2000 was that North Korea would survive at least until 2015.3 Paradoxically, Pyongyang seems to have turned its weakness into strength by playing its ?collapse card,? driving home that it is anything but a Fourth World banana republic that would disappear quietly without a big fight or a huge mess, a mess that no outside neighboring power would be willing or able to clean up. In addition, North Korea has catapulted itself into the position of a primary driver of Northeast Asian geopolitics through its nuclear diplomacy. Thus emerges the greatest irony of the region: today, in the post?Cold War world, North Korea seems both to enjoy a more secure sovereignty and pose greater security risks to its neighbors than has ever been the case in recent history.
The premise of this monograph is that for all its uniqueness as a state and its putative political autonomy, post?Kim Il Sung North Korea has been subject to the same external pressures and dynamics that are inherent in an increasingly interdependent and interactive world. The foreign relations that define the place of North Korea in the international community today are the result of trajectories that Pyongyang has chosen to take?or was forced to take?given its national interests and politics. In addition, the choices of the North Korean state are constrained by the international environment in which they interact, given its location at the center of Northeast Asian (NEA) geopolitics in which the interests of the Big Four inevitably compete, clash, mesh, etc., with each other in various issue areas as these nations pursue their self-determined courses in the region. North Korea, per se, is seldom of great importance to any of the Big Four. Its importance is closely keyed to and shaped by the overall foreign policy goals of each of the Big Four. North Korea is thus seen merely as part of the problem or part of the solution for Northeast Asia.
Rather than examining North Korean foreign relations strictly in the material terms of strategic state interests, balance of power, nuclear arsenals, and conventional force capabilities, it is important to question how instances of conflict and cooperation might be redefined in terms of conflicting and commensurable identities. Traditional realist national security approaches cannot escape the reactive (and self-fulfilling) consequences of a state?s security behavior for the behavior of its adversary. The issue of North Korea?s nuclear program can never be settled without addressing the country?s legitimate security needs and fears in strategically credible ways.4 This is not to say, however, that force ratios and trade levels do not matter, but rather that the contours of North Korean foreign relations are shaped by far more fundamental considerations.
This monograph consists of four sections. The first depicts in broad strokes sui generis regional (?near abroad?) characteristics for a contextual analysis of North Korean foreign relations in the post?Cold War era. The second examines the complex interplay of global, regional, and national forces that have influenced and shaped the changing relational patterns between North Korea and the Big Four Plus One. The third assesses Pyongyang?s survival strategy in both the security and economic domains. Finally, the fourth briefly addresses the future prospects of North Korea?s relations with the Big Four Plus One.
There is something very old and very new in post-Cold War foreign relations of the DPRK, affirming the old saying, ?The more things change, the more they remain the same.? As in the Cold-War era, the centrality of the Big Four in North Korea?s foreign policy thinking and behavior has remained unchanged. Indeed, the Big Four serve as the most sensitive barometer of the general orientation of North Korean foreign relations as a whole. To be sure, since 2000 North Korea has launched diplomatic outreach, establishing official relations with most EU member states, plus such other countries as Australia, Brazil, Canada, and Turkey. Pyongyang also became a member of the Asean Regional Forum (ARF) in 2002, gaining a political foothold in Southeast Asia. But few of these efforts have moved much beyond diplomatic formalities, and few really have concentrated the minds of key foreign policymakers in Pyongyang.
Despite or perhaps even because of the great-power centrality, North Korea?s relations with the Big Four Plus One changed dramatically in the post-Cold War era, especially since 2000. What is most striking about post-Cold War North Korean foreign policy is not the centrality of the Big Four but rather the extent to which the United States has functioned as a kind of force-multiplier for catalyzing some major changes and shifts in Pyongyang?s international approach to affairs. North Korea has sought and found a new troika of life-supporting geopolitical patrons in China, South Korea, and Russia and also a new pair of life-supporting geo-economic patrons in China and South Korea, even as the dominant perception of the United States has shifted significantly from an indispensable life-support system to a mortal threat.
As if to nod to the DPRK?s ?tyranny of proximity,? however, all three of North Korea?s contiguous neighbors?China, Russia, and South Korea? strongly oppose what these countries perceive to be Washington?s goal of regime change. For example, the Bush administration?s original plan of forming broadest possible NEA united front against the DPRK on the nuclear issue eventually was turned on its head by Beijing?s mediation diplomacy at the second session of the fourth round of Six Party talks, culminating in the September 19, 2005, Joint Statement of Principles? the first-ever successful outcome of the on-again, off-again multilateral dialogue of more than 2 years. China successfully mobilized ?the coalition of the willing? in support of its fifth and final draft of the Joint Statement?especially on the provision of a peaceful nuclear program (light-water reactor)?with three in favor (China, South Korea, Russia), one opposed (the United States), and one abstaining or split in its position between the two (Japan), creating an 3 1/2 and 1 1/2 vote against the U.S. position.
China, South Korea, and Russia favor North Korea?s proposal of a step-by-step denuclearization process based on simultaneous and reciprocal (?words for words? and ?action for action?) concessions.150 By contrast, the Bush administration?s CVID formula would require North Korea to reveal and permit ?the publicly disclosed and observable disablement of all nuclear weapons/weapons components and key centrifuge parts? before the United States indicates what incentives would be offered in return. With the situation in Iraq continuing to be a major challenge, the United States cannot afford an armed conflict in Northeast Asia, and this fact alone increases both North Korean and Chinese bargaining leverage in trying to chart a nonviolent course through the Six Party process.
Beijing?s commitment to underwrite gradual re- form of North Korea as a cost-effective means of averting its collapse as well as establishing a harmonious and well-off society (xiaokang shehui) at home was brought into sharp relief during Kim Jong Il?s fourth trip to China. Expanded life and reform support for North Korea through direct assistance, a growing trade and investment relationship, and a trade deficit that serves as de facto aid were signs of China?s determination to beef up a series of major economic reform measures initiated in the second half of 2002 rather than risk system collapse or regime change by the Bush administration. Kim Jong Il?s visit also suggests that ties between the two socialist allies are becoming ever closer, both politically and economically, in tandem with the rapid deterioration of Pyongyang?s relations with Washington and Tokyo. Adept at playing great powers off against each other, Kim Jong Il will no doubt use Chinese support to stimulate more aid without becoming too dependent on South Korea and as a powerful counterweight to the United States and Japan.
One thing that the collapsist school failed to realize is that Kim Il Sung?s death actually may have created a more stable DPRK. Kim Jong Il?s North Korea differs from that of his father, when the dream of unification involved the absorption of, not by, South Korea. As Georgy Bulychev suggests, ?Kim Jong Il . . . is neither Nero nor Louis XIV?he thinks about ?après moi? and wants to keep the state in place, but he also understands that it is impossible to do this without change.?151 In this context, a change in the regime?s strategic paradigm, rather than a change of the regime itself, looks more and more like the proper resolution to the broad concerns about North Korea?s future.152
As it is easy to say with Korea?and particularly with anything involving North Korea?the future of North Korea?s relations with the Big Four Plus One is unclear. Indeed, it seems more unclear now than it did in the early to mid 1990s when a broad swath of academics and policy analysts was predicting the imminent collapse of the North Korean regime and the reunification of Korea. The interplay between North Korea and the outside world is highly complex, variegated, and even confusing. What complicates our understanding of the shape of things to come in North Korea?s foreign relations is that all countries involved have become moving targets on turbulent trajectories subject to competing and often contradictory pressures and forces.
That said, however, the way the outside world? especially the Big Four plus Seoul?responds to Pyongyang is keyed closely to the way North Korea responds to the outside world. North Korea?s future is malleable rather than predetermined. This nondeterministic image of the future of the post?Kim Il Sung system opens up room for the outside world to use whatever leverage it might have to help North Korean leaders opt for one future scenario or another in the coming years.
A cornered and insecure North Korea is an unpredictable and even dangerous North Korea that may feel compelled to launch a preemptive strike, igniting a major armed conflagration in the Korean peninsula and beyond. For geopolitical, geo-economic, and other reasons, Beijing, Moscow, Seoul, and even Tokyo would be happier to see the peaceful coexistence of the two Korean states on the Korean peninsula than to cope with the turmoil, chaos, and probable massive exodus of refugees that system collapse would generate in its wake.
Despite the gloomy prospects for near-term movement on the negotiating front in Beijing, the Six Party process offers an opportunity to produce something larger than mere resolution of the specific issue of North Korea?s nuclear program. Not only is regional and global multilateralism now an integral part of security thinking in Beijing, Moscow, Seoul, and Tokyo, it also is a useful instrument for the much needed conflict management mechanisms in Northeast Asia. Therefore we should seize the twin historical opportunities of China?s rising multilateralism and the Six Party process in the interests of forming and institutionalizing a truly Northeast Asian security regime. The Northeast Asian states need to expand multilateral dialogue and economic integration in the interests of building order and solving problems. The U.S.-DPRK standoff risks derailing burgeoning Northeast Asian regionalism, yet it is this very regionalism that will help prevent future spirals like that characterizing both nuclear standoffs between the United States and North Korea.
1. See Michael Green, ?North Korean Regime Crisis: US Perspectives and Responses,? Korean Journal of Defense Analysis Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter 1997, p. 7; and ?North Korean Collapse Predicted,? The Associated Press, March 6, 1997.
2. For a wide array of speculations and analyses on the future of post?Kim Il Sung North Korea, see Nicholas Eberstadt, ?North Korea: Reform, Muddling Through, or Collapse?? NBR Analysis, Vol. 4, No. 3, 1993, pp. 5-16; idem, ?Hastening Korean Reunification,? Foreign Affairs, Vol. 76, No. 2, March/April 1997, pp. 77-92; Kyung-Won Kim, ?No Way Out: North Korea?s Impending Collapse,? Harvard International Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, Spring 1996, pp. 22-25, 71; Gavan McCormack, ?Kim Country: Hard Times in North Korea,? New Left Review, No. 198, March-April 1993, pp. 21-48; Dae-sook Suh, ?The Prospects for Change in North Korea,? Korea and World Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 1993, pp. 5-20; Robert Scalapino, ?North Korea at a Crossroads,? Essays in Public Policy No. 73, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, 1997, pp. 1-18; Jonathan D. Pollack and Chung Min Lee, Preparing for Korean Unification: Scenarios and Implications, Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1999; Nicholas Eberstadt, The End of North Korea,Washington, DC: The AEI Press, 1999; Marcus Noland, Avoiding the Apocalypse: The Future of the Two Koreas, Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 2000; Samuel S. Kim, ?The Future of the Post-Kim Il Sung System in North Korea,? Wonmo Dong, ed., The Two Koreas and the United States, Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, pp. 32-58; Kongdan Oh and Ralph Hassig, ?North Korea Between Collapse and Reform,? Asian Survey, Vol. 39, No. 2, March/April 1999, pp. 287-309; Marcus Noland, North Korea After Kim Jong-il, Washington, DC: Institute for International Economics, 2004.
3. The Korea Times, February 1, 2000, Internet version.
4. For application of a common-security approach in the Korean case, see Samuel S. Kim, ?The Two Koreas and World Order,? in Young Whan Kihl, ed., Korea and the World: Beyond the Cold War, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1994, pp. 29?65, especially pp. 56? 59; Mel Gurtov, ?Common Security in North Korea: Quest for a New Paradigm in Inter-Korean Relations,? Asian Survey, Vol. 42, No. 3, May/June 2002, pp. 397?418.
150. It is worth noting in this connection that the September 19 Joint Statement embodied many key elements that North Korea had first proposed but China emphasized in the Chairman?s Statements of the second and third rounds of talks, including most notably Principle 5. It states that ?the six parties agreed to take coordinated steps to implement the aforementioned consensus in a phased manner in line with the principle of ?commitment for commitment, action for action?.?
151. Georgy Bulychev, ?A Long-Term Strategy for North Korea,? Japan Focus, February 15, 2005, available at japanfocus.org/article.asp ?id=222.
152. In a similar vein, Robert Litwak argues that it is regime intention more than regime type that is the critical indicator of a country?s decision to go nuclear. See Robert Litwak, ?Non-Proliferation and the Dilemmas of Regime Change,? Survival, Vol. 45, No. 4, Winter 2003, p. 11.