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Understanding North Korea


Back when I was a working political scientist I spent a lot of time in the library reading newspapers (in translation) from Japan, principally about security issues. (We could not get this news online as recently as the 1990s.) Occasionally I would also peek in at the North Korean press, which was – if you could set aside the fact that millions of lives were ruined or ended by the regime that publishes the stuff – hysterically funny.

Sadly, the Western press does not nearly make up for all the deficiencies in that ludicrous propaganda from Pyongyang. Much worse, we have too many pundits and policymakers who know little about North Korea yet confidently carry on contributing to the stupidity of others.

Given all the junk punditry, where should one turn for enlightenment?

Here are two suggestions for interested readers without the time or energy to read a shelf of books on the subject: (1) a December 2005 review essay in the London Review of Books by Bruce Cumings, a professor in the history department at the University of Chicago, and (2) a slightly older New York Review of Books review essay by the New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof.

Kristof’s essay is the more superficial and therefore the place to start to learn the basics about the leadership of North Korea and how it manages to rule an extremely ill-informed population. The most chilling observations are not about the irrationality of the country’s leaders but about average Koreans who believe that not only is war inevitable but that it would bring an end to their severe deprivation. That they are probably correct about the latter part of the equation is both heartbreaking and worrisome.

Taking as his point of departure two books by Western journalists – Under The Loving Care Of The Fatherly Leader: North Korea And The Kim Dynasty by Bradley Martin (this book is also covered in the Kristof essay) and Rogue Regime: Kim Jong Il and the Looming Threat of North Korea by Jasper Becker -Cumings tells the reader as much about North Korea as he does about the way we think about North Korea.

And there is little salutary about the way too many of us think about North Korea. Our pundits, like Marx, Hegel, Montesquieu, Adam Smith and other big thinkers who thought there was an “Asiatic mode” of governance, are “peering through the wrong end of a telescope, or in a mirror, weighing a smattering of knowledge of Asia against their understanding of how the West developed,” Cumings argues.

The problem persists, of course, and is exacerbated by ignorance about basic military strategy and a fundamental understanding of such concepts like deterrence and reassurance. Many commentators evince little faith in nuclear deterrence – any use of nuclear weapons against the United States carries the high risk of an opposite and very unequal reaction – that has been an important pillar of our national security for decades. And even some of those pundits who seem to at least implicitly recognize this point do not appreciate the importance – and difficulty – of reassuring our ally Japan that this deterrence covers them. Get this latter task wrong and the arms race that results could rival that of the Cold War.

As Cumings suggests, these analytical deficiencies are compounded by a limp knowledge of American foreign policy toward Northeast Asia in the last half-century.

Anyone who knows anything about Northeast Asia is aware of Cumings’ high scholarly reputation. His politics are considered liberal, which may or may not be a demerit in your view. Maybe it helps to know that his own 2003 book, North Korea: Another Country, advertises good reviews from mainstream publications like the Financial Times. Stephen Kotkin, a professor of European and Asian history at Princeton University and the author of Armageddon Averted: The Soviet Collapse, 1970-2000, also wrote a generally positive review of the Cumings book for the New York Times.

The Kristof, Cumings, and Kotkin reviews will not you give you the answer for how to think about North Korea, but they may help you start to understand a subject which now divides many pundits and policymakers who spoke with one voice not so long ago.

I’m no expert on Northeast Asia – which is one reason I will refrain here from commenting on the Bush administration’s policy toward Pyongyang – and I am not suggesting that every journalist who reports on the subject is witless. Barbara Demick of the Los Angeles Times (she was once the paper’s bureau chief in Seoul) seems well informed, for example, and Slate’s Fred Kaplan is an expert on international security who writes about these issues intelligently.

Until we know as much as writers like these, the first steps are to recognize what we don’t know and to understand that we don’t know what we don’t know. Cumings and Kristof are a good start.

And if you know of another short-form source of enlightenment about Northeast Asian security that is written for a general audience, please let me know. My email address is to the right.

Editor’s Note: The Atlantic Monthly has been doing a good job on things Asia – national affairs correspondent Jim Fallows is hanging in Shanghai these days – recently ran this essay on North Korea as well as this cover story by Robert Kaplan.

Share  Posted by mzeringue at 2:32 PM | Permalink

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