My Op-Ed for the Korea Times on US-North Korea Relations: in short, They’re Awful


That picture would be me and the “Great Chosun Leader, Comrade Kim Il Sung” (“위대한 조선 수령 김일성 동지,” as they told us to call him) in the Pyongyang subway. You’ll notice that the gold stature is nicer than the passing metro car (right) from the 1960s. That pretty much tells you what, and how awful, North Korea’s priorities are.

The Korea Times asked me to comment on North Korea’s relationship with the US as a part of its review of North Korea’s foreign relations. The original is here and re-printed below. My main theme is that most Americans are unwilling to accept the legitimacy of North Korea as a real, independent country like any other. Not only is it run as a orwellian gangster fiefdom which the world would loathe anyway, it should also be a part of a Southern-led, unified Korea.

Naturally, this worries the NK elite who in turn are hostile back to us. I suppose we could accept and recognize the permanent existence of North Korea, as the South Korean left would have us do, but I must admit I find normalization intolerable. The idea of coexisting with North Korea strikes me as deeply immoral, even if the cost of that attitude is near-permanent tension. I suppose North Korea is one of few global problems about which I am still a real hawk, but North Korea’s human rights record is so stupendously awful – the recent UN report on human rights in North Korea likened the place to the Nazi Germany for christ’s sake – that I just can’t take that leftist route of recognition.

Here’s that op-ed:


“Much recent media discussion has focused on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s successful trip to South Korea. It was widely remarked that Xi visited South Korea before North Korea, and this is often taken to suggest Chinese disapproval of the North Korean nuclear program.

This suggests a happy convergence between China and the United States on North Korea. For years, the United States and North Korea have been at loggerheads, not just over the nuclear program but much else. If China is genuinely breaking with Pyongyang, at least over the nuclear weapons program, there may be room for a Chinese-South Korean-US joint position on North Korea. That would be a break-through.

The American relationship with North Korea has traditionally swung between two poles – grudging recognition of its persistence, and an idealistic rejection of it as a brutal stalinist throwback. There is no obvious solution to this dilemma. In recent years, President Barack Obama has channeled the former impulse with his notion of “strategic patience.” The United States now is simply waiting for North Korea to change, seeing no obvious reason to engage it when engagement so often leads to frustration. But there is no active effort to overthrow it or aggressively demonize it. On the other hand, President George Bush pursued the latter, idealistic course. Bush placed North Korea on the “axis of evil” and sought to pressure it into collapse. In this he was similar to former President LEE Myung-Bak of South Korea. Lee was also a hawk who thought he could push North Korea toward collapse.

This is turn raises the central dilemma of US-North Korea relations – Pyongyang’s maddening persistence and the extraordinary incompatibility between it and the United States. While the US has worked with dictatorships in the past, such as Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or Park Chung-Hee’s South Korea, totalitarian North Korea is in a class of its own. It the world’s last and worst orwellian tyranny. It is more stalinist than even Stalin’s Soviet Union. Its human right record exceeds even the Taliban in its awfulness. It also has a demonstrated history of expansionism – the invasion of 1950 – and terrorism, such as the bombing of the South Korean cabinet in 1983. On top of this, it engages in nuclear and missile technology proliferation, brews and sells narcotics, counterfeits foreign currencies, and so on.

The contrast with American political values of constitutional democracy is enormous, making it hard for American officials to accept North Korea as ‘just another country.’ The American instinct is to reject North Korean sovereignty as a fraud, to see Pyongyang as a gangster fiefdom run by an insular, paranoid monarchy that should be unified as quickly as possible with South Korea. South Korean conservatives often talk the same way, and this shared, if usually unspoken, rejection of North Korean legitimacy has been the cement of the American-South Korean relationship. By contrast, the South Korean left has often looked for mutual accommodation strategies, which have frequently generated tension with the United States. It is hard to imagine the US ever accepting North Korea as a state like any other, opening an embassy there, encouraging tourism, and so on.

Yet North Korea continues to grind on, to the enormous surprise and frustration of just about everyone. Decades of predictions that North Korea would collapse have been embarrassingly wrong. How North Korea continues to stumble along is a topic of intense debate, but neither the collapse of communism, the famines of the 1990s, nor the demonstration effects of Arab Spring seem to have made a dent. Leadership passed seamlessly from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un. Hence, the US-North Korean stand-off looks set to continue for decades. There is no obvious ‘off-ramp’ or ‘exit strategy’ short of unlikely regime collapse.”

1 thought on “My Op-Ed for the Korea Times on US-North Korea Relations: in short, They’re Awful

  1. I remember reading news stories/rumors of fairly wide-spread protests in North Korean villages after Kim Jung Un came to power. Did anything happen with those? Or were they all crushed?


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