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North Korean Exceptionalism and South Korean Conventionalism: Prospects for a Reverse Formulation?

From: Asia Policy
Number 15, January 2013
pp. 62-68 | 10.1353/asp.2013.0008

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North Korea is "uniquely unique." It is the world's sole Communist hereditary dynasty; the world's only literate, industrialized, urbanized peacetime economy to have suffered a famine; the world's most cultish totalitarian system; and the world's most secretive, isolated country—albeit one with the world's largest military in terms of manpower and defense spending proportional to population and national income.

The other Korea, the one south of the 38th parallel, is a global leader in trade, shipping, automobiles, and electronics. It is also a free democratic polity. And on December 19, South Korea elected Park Geunhye as president. Park is the first elected female leader in Korea and also in Confucian civilization, which consists of China, Japan, the two Koreas, Taiwan, Singapore, and Vietnam and makes up nearly a quarter of the world's population.

The contrast between the two Koreas could hardly be starker. One is a model failed state, whereas the other is a model success story. Indeed, the sum total of North Korea's realities renders it fascinating, often appalling, occasionally threatening, and almost always misunderstood. Yet the failed North continues to provoke the successful South with verbal threats, actual military attacks, and weapons tests, with a view toward reaping continued economic concessions. What explains this unconventional Korean dynamic and how will this dynamic play out in 2013? This essay depicts the top five myths about North Korea that have policy implications and offers a prescription for debunking them to the second Obama administration and to the new Park administration, which will take office in February 2013.

First is the myth that North Korea would dismantle its nuclear weapons program if not for Washington's hostile policy. The phrase "U.S. hostile policy" is a staple of official North Korean statements regarding the United States. It is also a belief that is deeply embedded in the North Korean people's consciousness through constant indoctrination. In North Korean historiography, the United States divided Korea (which is partially true—the Soviet Union was also an equal partner), started the Korean War (which is false—North Korea invaded the South), and constantly seeks to invade North Korea (which is false—Washington harbors no such impulse because it is simply too risky).

When hostile rhetoric emerges from the White House—for example, George W. Bush including North Korea in the "axis of evil" in 2002—or when the United States launches wars elsewhere, such as the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 or Iraq in 2003, Pyongyang's claim seems credible and, to some observers, even worthy of sympathy. But the fact is that Pyongyang has relentlessly pursued a nuclear weapons program for decades and, like all other nuclear weapons-possessing states, is unlikely to dismantle its nuclear arsenal in exchange for political or economic concessions.

Washington may be no friend of Pyongyang. But the strategic and symbolic value of the acquisition of a credible nuclear arsenal for the Kim regime should be taken at face value: nuclear weapons equal power and prestige like no other for North Korea, which fares extremely poorly in nearly all conventional indices of state power: political, economic, and soft power, not to mention territorial and population size. The one index in which it fares well is military power.

As a corollary of the above, the second myth is that Pyongyang's periodic provocative actions, such as attacks on South Korea or nuclear and long-range missile tests, are "self-defensive" measures against a threatening Seoul and Washington. In other words, these actions are less manifestations of Pyongyang's strategy than reactions to external stimuli. Such a patronizing view of the North Korean leadership does not comport with the record. Within the past year alone, North Korea has threatened to turn the South Korean presidential mansion into a "sea of fire," launch precision strikes against several South Korean media outlets (even citing the map coordinates of their head offices in Seoul), and launch a "merciless military strike" against South Korean activists attempting to send balloons filled with anti-North Korean leaflets into the North. Such threats by Pyongyang against South Korean civilians fit the technical definition of international terrorism. Yet many in the...

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