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To Understand North Korea, Toss Out Old Assumptions

Philip W. Yun, a State Department official during the Clinton administration, participated in negotiations with North Korea from 1998 to 2000.

Former chief weapons inspector David Kay’s criticism of U.S. intelligence on Iraq underscores the limits of our ability to collect and interpret such data. It should also caution neocons in Washington not to be smug about the depth of U.S. understanding of North Korea.

In early 1998, when I began my North Korea assignment at the State Department, I thought I knew all one needed to know about the country. As a Korean American whose mother was born in what is now North Korea and whose father was born in South Korea, I was a super-hawk on North Korea: The country was totalitarian, evil and weak; the U.S. was strong and, with enough pressure, would put this tiny nation in its place. However, I soon realized I had been viewing North Korea and its people as caricatures and that things were not so black and white.

The key to any confrontation is to know your adversary. As the U.S. contemplates its next steps toward Pyongyang, Bush administration officials should be mindful of the myths that they seem to harbor:

North Korea is poised to preemptively attack South Korea, the U.S. or Japan. It’s not true. Traditional deterrence works in our favor on the Korean peninsula for now. The North unquestionably has the ability to inflict massive damage in a military conflict, but it knows it would be destroyed if it attacked. Therefore, its goal has become defensive -- a porcupine strategy aimed at potential aggressors.

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So why the incessant bluster? In short, North Korea has a huge inferiority complex. Its economy is a shambles; there is little food. It touts its million-man army, yet its military might is slowly deteriorating (most of the North’s soldiers I saw were under 5 feet, 5 inches and waif-thin compared with many South Korean GIs who are at least 5 feet, 10 inches and 175 pounds).

The North’s leadership is motivated by regime survival and independence, not conquest. However, threatened by President Bush’s preemption doctrine and “axis of evil” label, it is willing to go to extremes, and nuclear weapons are but a very dangerous means to an end. The task for the U.S. is to persuade the North it is more secure without these weapons. This requires not only sticks but also carrots and a true willingness to engage.

The people are waiting for the overthrow of Kim Jong Il. Another myth. The North Korean people are not like those of old Soviet satellite states, ready to throw off the yoke of tyranny. They are more like brainwashed followers of a cult -- Kim Jong Il’s cult. North Korea is the world’s most isolated country, and most of its people know no other way of life. The reverence in which Kim is held is breathtaking and heartbreaking. At the Communist Workers Party 50th anniversary gala in 2000, during then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s visit, I saw 200,000 North Koreans, in white shirt, black tie and coat, break out in adoring ovation for their “Dear Leader.” Clearly, not only does Kim see himself the equal of any world leader, but hundreds of thousands of true believers would sacrifice themselves for him. Kim is here to stay; to assume otherwise is foolhardy.

A regime change or coup would solve our problems. The leadership is not a monolith; there are competing views among vested groups, like the military and the Communist Party. There is also a generational divide. Most of the top leaders I saw were older than North Korea itself and, at one time, had regular contact with the outside world. They subscribe to an independent, self-reliant North, but they can also be pragmatic. By contrast, the leadership in waiting -- now in their late 40s and 50s -- came of age late in the Cold War and in isolation. For them, propaganda and ideological rants have instilled notions of a weak Western character and a world bent on the North’s destruction. They agitate toward a Korean-style jihad, with a unified peninsula as sacred aspiration.

Of course it is difficult to make sweeping generalizations, but a significant number are the fanatically faithful. Therefore, if the U.S. pushes regime change too much, those coming into power could be even more thuggish toward the West.

The North has a brittle leadership susceptible to outside pressure. While China can influence the North on the margins, China probably will have little effect on North Korean behavior on core security issues. Some point to the economic leverage China holds over the North, but dependence does not always mean an ability to control behavior, considering the North Korean willingness for self-sacrifice.

North Korean negotiators say U.S. tactics are akin to making the country “pull its pants down.” For them, weakness invites repeated intimidation, so a push inevitably leads to a harder push back. Given this, it would not be a surprise if Kim is now resolved all the more to avoid Saddam Hussein’s embarrassing fate. In the eyes of Kim, nuclear weapons may be the only way, as the North has implied.

Sketchy intelligence is the norm with North Korea. Granted, miscalculation is a fact of life, but with Pyongyang, such miscalculation would be tragic. Substance is what matters if we are to prevent both the emergence of a nuclear weapons supermarket in the region and a catastrophic war to put it out of business. But trying to stare down dangerous strongmen will, in the case of North Korea, only harden Pyongyang’s resolve.

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