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  • Huis Clos:The Limits of Understanding North Korean Decisionmaking
  • Jeffrey Lewis (bio)

When the Institute of International Strategic Studies transformed its venerable Adelphi Papers into a series of book-length monographs, I had my doubts. However, Jonathan Pollack's No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security is a wonderful book that demonstrates the upside of such an approach.

Pollack opens with a damning picture of the U.S. policy debate over whether or not to engage the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK). This debate is dominated by what Pollack calls an "if only" approach to policy, with advocates for differing policy approaches convinced that their respective approaches have not been pursued fully enough to succeed. Such an approach necessarily reduces the DPRK to little more than an automaton that responds mechanically to U.S. provocation or weakness, depending on the policy of choice.

Pollack sets for himself the difficult but ultimately rewarding goal of painting North Korea back into the picture as a strategic actor in its own right, with its own perceptions and motivations. To this end, he has assembled an impressive—and diverse—array of sources to access Pyongyang's strategic motivations. Pollack has done a masterful job of attempting to peer inside the North Korean regime despite its opacity. He cites interviews with diplomats who met Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, as well as documents from the archives of former Communist governments in Eastern Europe. He twice traveled to North Korea for Track 2 dialogues with North Korean officials. Even his acknowledgements have three footnotes.

Pollack has an eye for anecdotes that advance the narrative, which is essentially chronological, while also illuminating constant features of the regime. His description of how Kim Il-sung sought to avoid dependence on either the Soviet Union or China, frequently playing one against the other, is eye-opening, particularly as North Korea elicited economic assistance and security guarantees during the Cold War from reluctant partners in Moscow and Beijing. Among the profoundly misguided bits of conventional wisdom that distort discussions about North Korea's nuclear weapons, none is more pernicious than the view that Pyongyang is simply a Chinese puppet. Pollack [End Page 171] provides a careful and accessible account of North Korean diplomatic activities to demonstrate the full complexity of relations between Beijing and Pyongyang.

Yet despite his impressive scholarship, which exceeds that of any comparable study, No Exit still reads like a particularly impressive piece of Soviet-era Kremlinology. It is insightful, provocative, and stimulating, but the actual object of discussion remains tantalizingly out of reach. Pollack explains his choice of title, appropriated from Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit, in terms of its ambiguous rendering in Korean. It is perhaps worth noting that the original title of Sartre's work in French is Huis Clos, which is the French administrative equivalent of "in camera"—a proceeding held behind closed doors. If there is a shortcoming of this book, it is that despite Pollack's considerable ingenuity, the decisionmaking in Pyongyang remains "huis clos."

It is hard to fault Pollack, who has demonstrated considerable perspicacity in seeking new sources of insight. North Korea is simply a difficult subject. The lack of insight into the formal decisionmaking process means that time and again the reader is asked to understand a decision by the DPRK in terms of the outlook of Kim Il-sung and, to a lesser degree, Kim Jong-il. At the outset, Pollack takes note of Jacques Hymans's The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation.1 This comment, made in passing, is telling. Much of the implicit methodology of No Exit reflects what Hymans would call psychology—questions of how leaders conceive of their national identity. Later, Pollack describes the North Korean regime as based on a system of "adversarial nationalism"—an echo of Hymans's notion of "oppositional nationalism" (p. 184).

Often this approach is extraordinarily revealing. In 1956 the Soviet Union and China forced Kim Il-sung to stop a purge of North Korean officials, many of whom had long-standing ties to Moscow and Beijing. When the Hungarian revolution broke out shortly after, in October 1956, Kim took advantage...


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pp. 171-174
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