The impetus for writing this text was a response to an article by one of the “Internet patriots”, who takes every opportunity to step forward with accusations, claiming that “the filthy Yankees are to be blamed for everything”. This time he touched upon the topic of the US policy towards North Korea, and I felt an urge to set him straight. I will not refer to the author directly – I won’t do him the honor. But I hope my readers will guess who I am talking about.
In my opinion, there are two points to keep in mind when describing American mentality and the ensuing policy of the US. Normally, anti-American propaganda would portray Americans as ingenious cynics who will draw a line at nothing trying to reach their goals. What is more, they are portrayed to make no mistakes, be perfectly familiar with the domestic affairs of any country and possess all the features of an enemy right out of a conspiracy theory.
However, if one reads American internal documents (for instance, those revealed by Wikileaks or by Snowden), they will see, that in America incompetent idlers hold the posts of officials and high-rank analysts just as often as in any other country. Here we can also recall the fact, that when the USA initiated its intervention to Afghanistan, there was not a single American expert fluent in the local languages. This speaks, at least, of the quality of the data collected by the Americans.
So, we are used to seeing Americans as cynics, but what they really are is fanatics. Fanatics, whose mentality is reminiscent of the Comintern activists of 1930-ies: “we live in the best society on the planet and bring the beacon of democracy to the rest of the world. All nations should accept it and those who resist belong to the Forces of Evil.”
Americans believe that people’s mind-set is identical across the globe being similar to that of a common American in terms of immediate acceptance of democracy. National and cultural features are not taken into account or are perceived as annoying trifles. Americans assume that every nation wants democracy and freedom (in American understanding), and the only problem is that authoritarian regimes preclude this wish from coming true.
Besides, one should remember, that the level of pluralism in the US is high indeed. This means that there are several parallel approaches to the topic of North Korea. Depending on the political situation this or that approach becomes mainstream, but advocates of either approach do not disappear and the debate goes on.
The four major approaches are:
The supporters of the messianic approach advocate the total spreading of the liberal democratic model by all means, including change of regime in the country. This group is very much influenced by the “Cold War” ideology and/or the special role of America as a crusader of democracy.
According to Richard Cheney, former Vice President of the US, “America does not negotiate with Evil. America defeats Evil.” As far as this value system is concerned, the authoritarian and collectivist regime of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), that openly opposes itself to the American World Order, is, undoubtedly, Evil with a capital “E”. It annoys the “democracy supporters” by its mere existence and undermines the US reputation as a superpower. What claims to global dominance can there be, if “the Superpower” cannot even deal with North Korea?
There’re two consequences to that. Firstly, regarding North Korea as an equal partner in negotiations means making concessions to the tyrannical regime, so negotiations are only acceptable as a means of concerted pressure on Pyongyan or as a means of creating conditions under which the regime would surrender or would be changed.
For an advocate of this approach, a dialogue with North Korea is a nightmare in which the Pope publicly announces that, in view of the new political situation, we now perceive Satan as an angel and are to initiate talks with him, recognizing his status as the Prince of The World. Here is the question: are you ready to stop perceiving DPRK as a cartoon State of Infernal Evil and start real talks (as opposed to the usual manipulations under the guise of talks aimed at destabilization of the situation or at a “change of the regime”)? This question is not easier to answer than, for example, a question to Pyongyang regarding its willingness to renounce nuclear weapons.
Secondly, since the totalitarian DPRK is “Evil”, a no-holds-barred struggle is acceptable. After all, for an advocate of messianic approach the North Korean regime is odious enough to sincerely desire for its destruction by any means (from provoking an inner collapse to exaggerating the topic of preventive strikes and toughening of foreign pressure).
In the mindset of some of the messianic approach advocates democratic ideology is coupled with anticommunist attitudes (persisting from the Cold War times) or with “unclosed gestalt” of the Korean War (1950-1953) outcome. However, compared to the belief in democracy, these attitudes have minor significance.
In opinion of the advocates of the pragmatic view, US faces enough problems, and if America wants to re-establish/ strengthen its status as a superpower, it should set right priorities, solving real problems rather than made-up ones.
As far as DPRK is concerned, the pragmatic attitude can be described in one sentence: “we’ve got some good and some bad news”. The good news is that North Korea is a “paper tiger” and does not pose a real threat – neither in terms of possible aggression, nor as a source for nuclear proliferation. The bad news is that it will never hand over its nuclear bomb under the current circumstances.
That is why – in opinion of the pragmatics – America should not spend excessive efforts and means for solving this problem, exercising “strategic patience” (the term was coined in the times of Obama’s presidency). What America should do is reduce the level of involvement and play it by ear, letting the neighbors of DPRK’s solve this unprofitable issue (or, at least, bear the main burden of expenses). If something unpredicted happens (something that would seriously change the status quo), America can always switch to a new strategy. Meanwhile, as DPRK is slowly keeling over because of the sanctions, time is on America’s side. Under these current tendencies, the beneficial change might happen by itself.
Messianics and pragmatists are often likened to the Republicans and Democrats, however the correlation here is indirect (over the last years of Bush’s presidency the role of messianic supporters decreased significantly). The confrontation between representatives of the “Bible Belt America” and the “Big City America” correlates with the “messianics versus pragmatists” confrontation indirectly as well.
While the messianics are ready to unleash a war (though not necessarily a “shooting” one), pragmatists prefer methods of influence that are more subtle: first of all, the “soft power” method, or making use of the mechanisms of globalization and involvement of international organizations. With regard to North Korea the former traditionally stress “nuclear blackmailing” and “aiding terrorism” as its key fault, while the latter rather stress “human rights violation”. The pragmatists are truly preoccupied with the humanitarian issues. For many of those to whom I talked in person human rights is not an empty phrase. The pragmatists know (or rather they believe) that human rights are violated in North Korea. That is why they sincerely assume that a regime, that lets such terrible things happen, must be changed.
In terms of the strategy, pragmatists base their ideas on the principle of cost-effectiveness, stressing that America does not have a need in a “short victorious war” (even in this region). Thus, the focus is on promotion of the human rights issue, demonization of North Korea in the media, maintenance of the sanctions regime (that sooner or later will initiate a systemic crisis in DPRK). It means encouragement of actions by other parties aimed at provoking destruction of the regime from the inside, as well of stimulation of the internal “democratic forces” within the country.
According to the view of yet another group of American strategists – nonproliferators, the key problem of DPRK is not that it is a communist regime America failed to defeat back in 1953, but rather the fact that the actions of DPRK ruin the elite image of the nuclear club which can be a bad example to others. The crisis of the nonproliferation regime is a much more serious threat to the modern world order than certain North Korea ambitions. It is much more difficult to create a unipolar global order in a world based on nuclear neutrality. On the other hand, settlement of the DPRK nuclear issue on American terms will lower the level of the possible tensions, halt the “nuclear domino” trend (that is very undesirable for the US), and, in general, will boost the prestige of the US as an “honest guarantor of the international security”.
To understand the nonproliferation supporters, one should bear in mind that North Korea is not the only precedent shaking the nuclear weapons nonproliferation regime. India’s and Pakistan’s nuclear potential is already quite strong, and the attempts to “nip them in the bud” have failed. It is not clear whether Israel has a bomb as well or not. And finally, there is DPRK, whose nuclear potential comes together with its oppositional political position.
North Korea creates the so-called “security dilemma: its desire to protect itself makes its neighbors feel that they are being threatened and provokes a return to the arms race and to the overall global tension. In Seoul and Tokyo there are already some discussions that Sothern Korea and Japan need a bomb of their own for being able to defend themselves against DPRK. Given certain political support, such bomb will appear quite soon. In its turn, this will ultimately initiate the arms race and expansion of the nuclear club, putting the America’s power in question. The mere emergence of the new nuclear states would demonstrate that the US is unable to prevent this scenario from happening. And it is extremely difficult to propagate democracy by missiles to a nuclear power.
Naturally, no concessions can be made as far as the nuclear problem is concerned. “We must be 100% sure that North Korea does not have any opportunity to proliferate nuclear technologies or secretly conduct research building up its nuclear potential”, – that is the stand of the nonprolifirators. This position is held with maximum toughness and meticulousness. However, to reach such a goal as the complete nuclear disarmament of North Korea, it is ok to consider some tit-for-tat action (that would not seriously harm the image of a superpower).
The nonproliferators’ view the North Korea issue in a broader context, and though their opinion may seem the most constructive one, their position is the weakest at the moment. Christopher Hill, who was one of the most graphic representatives of the nonproliferation view, took a serious risk trying to settle the nuclear crisis before the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. Mr. Hill had special authorities, but because of a range of reasons he did not manage to succeed with his undertaking in the proper time, which, in fact, put his career to an end.
Moreover, it should be noted that today, since North Korea’s nuclear status is officially recorded in its constitution, dismantling of the nuclear program will certainly affect the internal affairs of the country.
In the value system of the cynics, DPRK is a pretext for the US to increase its presence in the region, while the true focus of America is on Russia and China.
The cynics agree with pragmatists on the “paper tiger” idea (from their point of view, Iran and Pakistan are more dangerous as far as nuclear weapons proliferation is concerned). The North Korean regime, in its contemporary form, is a pretext for a whole system of military and political programs, from anti-missile defense development (even in Europe) to stirring up of a long-term tension on the Korean peninsula to distract Russia’s and China’s efforts and resources.
Since politics is the art of the uncertainty, one can benefit from any change in the situation. When an event happens, one can state that what happened was exactly the intended goal (and not a series of mistakes or accidental developments), that the plan worked out just fine. This approach is actually what makes the author, whom I am criticizing, believe in the conspiracy schemes of the omnipresent US State Department.
Cynics assume that America would benefit, though in different ways, from almost any development of the situation. That is why there’s no deadline to solving the problem, and the USA would derive benefit from any North Korean action or any development of the global relationships. Concessions would speed up surrender or denuclearization of DPRK, while hard stance and demarches would turn an acute crisis into a chronic one and perpetuate the fight against the North Korean threat for as long as it is needed. The change of the North Korean regime would lead either to absorption of the DPRK and access of the US armed forces to Russian and Chinese boarders or to conversion of the peninsula into a zone of controlled instability (that – like a nonhealing sordid wound – would draw off the efforts and resources of Russia and China, weakening them as potential enemies of the US).
Even unification of Korea in the near future would be beneficial, since a large scope of the related problems would ask for an active involvement of the US in their settlement. The main risk the cynics see is that North Korea would not play the part everybody got used to. DPRK’s dialogue with its neighbors, as well as its economic growth would destroy its negative image. Anyway, even if the regime starts changing fast, the reforms produce the effect, and there is a chance for a rapid settlement of the North Korean nuclear program issue, it won’t be hard to prompt North Korea for another outbreak of animosity provoking a new crisis.
It can be said that North Korea has been sacrificed to the US interests for the sake of maintenance and growth of American influence in Northeastern Asia. The idea of creating a military zone or a controlled zone of instability near China is quite appealing taking into account the possible confrontation between the US and China.
To sum up, none of these approaches wish North Korea well (rather – in different ways – they mean ill to it); however, the standoff between the proponents of the described different views has been quite tense.
But us – in our turn – we should not simplify things and reduce our attitudes to propaganda claims such as “US is to be blamed for everything”. Chinese strategy teaches us: in order to defeat the enemy you need to know him, without replacing their objective features with your own fantasies.
Konstantin Asmolov, candidate of historical sciences, senior researcher at the Institute of Oriental Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.