Making Sense of the 'Hermit Kingdom': North Korea in the Nuclear Age

Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea.

Juche Tower in Pyongyang, North Korea. Built as a monument to both Kim Il-sung and the "self-reliance" ideology of "juche," Juche Tower stands as an example to North Koreans of their diplomatic and economic potential. At the same time, Juche results in diplomatic paradoxes as the North Korean state tries to balance power at home with prestige abroad.

Editor's Note

The Bush administration's controversial October 2008 decision to take North Korea off the list of state sponsors of terrorism, in an effort to keep Pyongyang's nuclear program halted, opens a new chapter in the history of North Korea's international relations. Nuclear proliferation is worrisome anywhere in the world, but particularly coming from secretive, unpredictable, and, for many analysts around the world, incomprehensible North Korea. Water Mondale once declared 'anyone who claims to be an expert on North Korea is either a liar or a fool.' This month, Mitchell Lerner, a professor of history at Ohio State, braves being called one or the other. He offers insight into how policy is formed in North Korea and what drives its seemingly fickle relations with the rest of the world.

Origins gratefully acknowledges the support of The Center for East Asian Studies at The Ohio State University in preparing this article. For more on recent events in East Asia, see the June 2008 Origins article on Taiwan’s Presidential elections.

While Americans have been focused on the economic crisis and the Presidential elections, events in North Korea have not received the attention they otherwise might. This fall, much to the consternation of American officials, North Korea threatened to restart its nuclear facility at Yongbyon, demanding that the U.S. remove it from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. North Korea had agreed to shut down Yongbyon in 2007, following its October 2006 nuclear detonation and the ensuing six-party talks (involving North and South Korea, China, Russia, Japan, and the U.S.).

Amidst intense debate in Washington, and despite significant opposition, the Bush administration quickly complied with the terror-list demand (in return for certain limited assurances about disarmament, information, and inspections), fearing that the delicate nuclear balance reached in 2007 was about to be overturned. Just weeks after celebrating its 60th anniversary as a country, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) was released from George Bush's "axis of evil."

Still, few in the U.S. were optimistic that the dispute was now resolved. "I am profoundly disappointed," complained Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. "By rewarding North Korea before the regime has carried out its commitments, we are encouraging this regime to continue its illicit nuclear program."

North Korea has arguably been the greatest thorn in the side of American foreign policy since the end of the Second World War. Yet, while so many in and out of American government express concern and at times outrage over DPRK policy, few claim to understand the underlying motives and objectives that have guided the nation's seemingly incoherent and unpredictable belligerency. "Anyone who claims to be an expert on North Korea," former vice-president Walter Mondale once famously declared, "is either a liar or a fool."

Particularly vexing has been the North's propensity for creating trouble just when it seems to be at its weakest, sometimes even taking bellicose action against the West while at the very same moment its leaders seek Western assistance, spurring anger and frustration from the U.S. and its allies. North Korea, lamented one exasperated American congressman recently "makes it very difficult to have a normal relationship with them."

Events from the past few decades offer a series of instructive examples. Torrential rains in 1995 and 1996, followed by a series of droughts, devastated the nation's food production. Further complicating the situation was the fact that China was also reducing its food aid significantly.

Conditions were simply horrific. Children lived on 35% of the UN recommended caloric intake and families tried to survive on diets of weeds, roots, and bark. "Today," began one official radio broadcast in 1996, "I will introduce you to tasty and healthy ways to eat wild grass." The United States, South Korea, and Japan, among others, helped to fill the void, providing food aid worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Suddenly, in the midst of this disaster, a North Korean submarine on an espionage mission ran aground near South Korean territory. DPRK commandos abandoned the vessel and attempted to infiltrate the South, sparking firefights that left 24 North Koreans and 14 South Koreans dead. A very unrepentant North Korean government condemned the South's behavior as "barbarousness and beastliness," and warned that they might "be forced to take strong countermeasures." South Korea responded by cutting off most aid to the destitute country.

Soon thereafter, U.S. reconnaissance satellites discovered a newly built North Korean launch platform for its medium-range Nodong-1 missile, which placed almost all of Japan in range. Rumors of an impending missile test followed, as did widespread condemnation. In August 1998, while still accepting massive amounts of Western-bloc aid, North Korea launched a multi-stage Taepo-dong I missile across Japan and into the Pacific. Quickly Japan and the U.S. condemned the test and cut off most forms of assistance.

Americans were stunned by the North's ingratitude and irrationality. "We don't know much about North Korea and who this Kim Jong-il is," lamented Congressman Jay Kim (R-CA). "I understand he is not a rational individual."

Current events on the Korean Peninsula have followed a similar pattern. So far this year, the North has received four large shipments of food aid from the United States, including 24,000 tons of corn distributed just a few weeks ago. The U.S. also provided $1.2 million in medical assistance earlier in the summer, and other nations delivered critical aid as well, including 600 tons of steel provided by South Korea.

Considering the dire economic situation inside the North, few doubted the necessity of such support. Problems were, as they so often are in North Korea, virtually ubiquitous: food shortages; flooding; significant price increases for rice; cuts in government food rations; and massive insect infestations marked daily life. Once again, thousands suffered, starved, and perished in a food crisis the World Food Program warned was the worst in a decade.

And yet, once again, the North, just when it seemed most dependent on outside assistance, suddenly reverted to its more aggressive and provocative behavior. In April, the government launched a series of attacks against foreign media, ordering its security forces to confiscate all videocassettes, mobile phones, and written materials that foreign press brought into the country. In September the government expelled international inspectors from Yongbyon and removed the seals and video cameras that had been installed by the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor the facility.

Once again, widespread condemnation followed, much of which focused on the obvious irrationality of a country that always seemed to choose moments of great internal weakness and foreign dependency to spark international crises. To re-write Theodore Roosevelt's famous adage, the DPRK seems to speak most loudly when it has to borrow a stick.

The Ideology of Juche

These crises serve as revealing snapshots of the long history of U.S.-DPRK relations. By Western standards, the contradiction was obvious: how could the North expect to receive outside aid while at the same time stirring up trouble for those providing it? How could any government implicitly threaten a long-standing rival by launching a missile test in their direction and still expect that rival to offer assistance?

And yet, a window has recently opened into Pyongyang, one that suggests that this apparent contradiction actually holds the key to understanding North Korean foreign policy. Critical to this interpretation was the collapse of the Soviet Union, which for the first time allowed scholars access to materials related to the DPRK.

North Korean records, of course, remain inaccessible (if they exist at all), but North Korean communications with their former allies, as well as their allies' records about them, have finally started to emerge. And in these documents, some believe, lie the key to understanding the policies of the Hermit Kingdom.

These new materials suggest that two related forces serve as the driving factors behind DPRK foreign policy, both of which place domestic imperatives at the core. Most obvious is the nation's tendency to use or even manufacture the presence of an American threat to justify domestic shortcomings and repressive policies.

When an economic downturn became pronounced in the 1960s, for example, North Korean ruler Kim Il-sung blamed it on the need for "strengthening the national defense power," and constantly played up the threat of American invasion, even to the point of claiming fictitious American assaults (and their equally fictitious defeats) against the DPRK people, and provoking military crises involving the U.S. and South Korea. Unable to deny the economic deprivation sweeping his country, Kim simply attributed it to the growing military conflicts with the United States, neglecting to point out that he lay behind most of these conflicts.

Communist-bloc allies recognized the tactic. The DPRK, noted the East German Ambassador in Pyongyang in 1967, "tries to portray the situation as if an attack by the USA is imminent in order to justify their positions domestically and externally." But within the closed and isolated nation itself, there was little information available to challenge Kim's claims.

Put simply, an examination of DPRK-U.S. relations during the Cold War suggests that North Korean leaders have relied on the ability to point the finger of blame at an American threat in order to keep it from being pointed at themselves.

Such an argument, though, could be made (and often was) about many of America's Cold War enemies. A second factor, however, makes the North Korean case exceptional. Understanding DPRK policies requires recognizing the vital role played by the nation's defining ideology: juche. Juche (roughly translated as "self-reliance") was first introduced by Kim Il-sung in 1955, and soon became the almost ubiquitous principle underlying the society.

On a basic level, juche can be defined as a state of mind in which Koreans advance their interests free of external influence. It stresses the need for Koreans to develop their nation in accordance with their own traditions and values, and under the guidance of indigenous leadership above all else. Such a belief system rooted in nationalism is of course not uncommon, but in Korea, a country with a long history of colonial occupation and resistance, a common language, and shared ancestral culture, it was particularly effective.

Long ago, Koreans had come to resent decisions by the nation's elite to turn the country essentially into a vassal state of China for hundreds of years under the Yi Dynasty. This sycophancy, labeled sadaejuui (or, "serving the great"), was generally regarded as the ultimate betrayal of the nation's interests and a critical factor in the nation's constant struggle against foreign occupation, particularly the Japanese occupation that marked the first half of the 20th century (1910-1945). Accordingly, it helped spark a sense of national spirit and resentment of foreign influence that made the nationalist appeal of juche even stronger.

While juche praised the contributions of the Korean people in national development, it also emphasized the role of a single leader, the suryong, without whose guidance the masses would be unable to discern the correct path toward their socialist utopia.

The extent to which juche permeated the society is almost difficult for outsiders to comprehend. Here, in the most fundamentally closed and repressive nation in the modern world, Kim Il-sung was able to eliminate all competing belief systems and create a nation where juche was the omnipresent guide to life and existence.

The nation's constitution became a tribute to juche, explaining, "The DPRK is guided in its activities by the Juche idea, a world outlook centered on people, a revolutionary ideology for achieving the independence of the masses of people." Citizens were required to study juche from birth; calendars were revised to start with the year Juche 1 (the year of Kim's birth); and in 1982 the DPRK built the juche tower, a 170 meter national monument honoring juche and its ideas, complete with 25,550 blocks of white granite, one for each day of Kim's life from birth to his 70th birthday.

North Koreans simply could not escape its intellectual thrall. "I never thought that Juche . . . was a closed or oppressive ideology," recalled one defector, "but I simply believed it as truth… I could not even imagine being disloyal to Kim Il-sung. When he died I was sad much as when my father died."

Evidence reveals that little has changed with the death of Kim Il-sung in 1994 and the ascension of his son, Kim Jong-il, to power. In fact, among the first signs of the younger Kim's entry into DPRK politics was the publication in 1982 of his treatise, On the Juche Idea, which was claimed by the regime to be the definitive explanation of this principle. He has since written and spoken widely of juche, and continued his father's efforts to foist it onto the collective consciousness of society.

The relationship between juche and policymaking becomes clear when one digs more deeply into its precise meaning. Although it originated as a general call for self-reliance,juche was soon defined in terms of three critical realms, demanding "independence in politics, self-reliance in the economy, and self-defense in national defense." In each of these fields, juche insisted on an assertion of North Korean exceptionalism and a rejection of all external forces.

In the political realm, it called for chaju (independence), in which North Korean leaders governed without constraint from outside pressure or internal challenge. Economically,juche called for charip (self-sustenance), which required a largely self-contained economy based on domestic workers using domestic resources to satisfy domestic needs. In international relations, juche advocated chawi (self-defense), a foreign policy based on complete equality and mutual respect between nations as well as the right of self-determination and independent policymaking.

Juche, simply, demanded the people subordinate themselves to the state, and the state in turn would advance their collective interests in accordance with the uniqueness and majesty of Korea, and always in pursuit of greater economic, political, and international independence.

By justifying the position of the suryong (single leader) and uniting the people behind him,juche successfully advanced Kim's interests. However, by closely associating the government's legitimacy with its successful pursuit of juche, Kim had opened the door to potential disaster. When he triumphantly achieved juche, North Koreans would perpetuate and even embrace his rule. But if the pursuit was unsuccessful, the most fundamental justification for the regime would appear violated.

Kim's government thus expended much energy throughout the Cold War to demonstrate itsjuche to the people. Yet, there were inevitably times when internal problems became so obvious that even Kim could not hide them. Such times demanded that he find, or even manufacture, evidence of juche elsewhere.

When considered within this framework, Kim's tendency to behave more aggressively when he seemed to be at his weakest makes sense. Unable to deny economic and political instability that suggested his government was not acting in accordance with jucheprinciples, Kim redoubled his efforts to demonstrate his strength and independence in the third juche realm, foreign policy.

In fact, if one was to plot three graphs––one charting evidence of economic turmoil in the North; one charting the level of political instability and even opposition to Kim Il-sung within the DPRK government; and one tracking the provocative actions of the North against the U.S. or South Korea––the similarity between the rise and fall of the three graphs over the past five decades would be striking.

A Pattern Emerges

Tracing the history of DPRK-American relations based on the new records from the former Communist-bloc states seems to validate this pattern.

From the mid-1950s until approximately 1964, North Korean society was awash in evidence of political and economicjuche. The Five-Year Plan established in 1957 actually achieved its economic targets in four years. Especially significant, particularly in the sense that it offered clear signs of juche, was the growth of local industry, which produced an estimated 100% of the nation's soft drinks, wine, and beer, along with over 90% of bean paste and soy sauce.

Politically, Kim Il-sung consolidated power and ruled with an iron fist, having purged his largest power rivals by 1957 and expelled Chinese troops in 1958. Kim thus appears to have had less need for evidence of juche in his international relations during this time, a fact that was reflected in the country's less hostile behavior.

Starting in the late 1950s, the DPRK made a number of proposals ostensibly designed to move the peninsula towards peaceful reunification. In the early 1960s the emphasis shifted towards encouraging direct North-South talks on cultural and economic links. Such plans went nowhere, but the fact that diplomatic proposals, rather than bullets or vitriol, were emanating from the North was an obvious sign that the tensions and provocations that had marked the preceding years had lessened.

Soon, however, the situation reversed itself, as the second half of the 1960s represented a significant setback to Kim's efforts to demonstrate his juche. Nowhere was this more evident than in the economic realm. Shortages in food, power, and housing were ubiquitous, and the seven-year plan had to be extended to ten years to meet its targets, many of which still went unrealized. North Koreans, reported one source in 1967, "are starving and leading a miserable life."

Kim blamed the problems on American aggression and attributed much of the shortcomings to the need to prepare for an impending attack. "There has been a very intense campaign among the people concerning preparation for a potential war," wrote an East German Embassy official to Moscow, in a message that attributed this campaign to "mostly propagandistic reasons."

Kim faced growing internal challenges to his policymaking authority at the same time. During the mid-1960s, a group of moderates emerged to demand greater spending on light and consumer industry, and a decrease in the amount of resources devoted toward encouraging rebellion in the South. In response, a more hard-line wing rose to the fore, supporting a greater emphasis on military and defense spending and a focus on heavy industrial development.

Kim first sided with the hard-liners, launching a series of purges of the moderates in 1967, but soon reversed course and ousted many of the leaders of the more militant faction. Overall, these purges offered dramatic and obvious signs of political instability, as almost two-thirds of key local government and party posts were vacant by 1968.

Kim responded to these internal problems by increasing his international provocations, which began in 1965 and brought the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war in 1968. Clearly just as Northern economic and political stability had dissipated, the more tolerant and passive North Korea of the late 1950s had vanished as well.

In the early 1970s the situation again reversed itself. These years saw a brief stabilization in the critical domestic areas and a corresponding shift away from aggressive behavior towards the Western bloc. The wave of purges in the second half of the 1960s had eliminated potential threats to Kim's regime, thus offering him political juche, while signs of economic stability emerged as well, including a major, across-the-board pay raise issued in 1970, and a noticeable increase in exports.

At the same time, Kim reversed his aggressive policies towards the West. The number of known sea and land infiltrations across the parallel by the North fell from 144 in 1969 to 20 in 1972, and soon the New York Times wrote of Kim's "new flexibility," his "friendly gestures," his "wish to end isolation," and even of "the new spirit of Panmunjom."

In 1971, Kim agreed to participate in inter-Korean Red Cross talks in Panmunjom, sparking the first face-to-face talks between the sides in two decades. Quietly, other diplomatic channels were pursued, including a series of secret talks between high-ranking representatives from each government that culminated with the release of a Joint Communiqué on July 4, 1972, a date that itself suggests a lesser animosity towards the Americans.

Once again, the pattern was clear: an internally stable North Korea did not need to manufacture provocations in order to prove its ability to act independently, and thus just as quickly as it had begun, the campaign against the United States and South Korea came to a close.

Juche and the West

How contemporary American policymakers use this knowledge is, of course, another story, one to be told by future historians. The past, however, does not suggest reasons for optimism.

Throughout the Cold War, American officials generally discounted the possibility that North Korean actions were premised on North Korean imperatives. Instead the tendency was simply to lump the DPRK into a larger Communist conspiracy, embracing a one-size-fits-all model that usually attributed North Korean actions to the larger Cold War struggle, and discouraged any detailed examination of DPRK values and traditions.

After the Cold War, American policymakers could no longer point fingers at a global communist menace but they often clung to the fiction that China could control North Korean behavior, although recent releases from Communist archives suggest otherwise.

Other American policymakers have largely abandoned the effort to make sense of the country, simply dismissing it as evil and incomprehensible. Congressman Trent Franks (R-AZ) has spoken of "North Korea's insane leadership," and Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz declared, "I'm more profoundly skeptical of North Korea than of any other country—both how they think, which I don't understand, and the series of bizarre things they have done."

Yet, this historical survey of U.S.-DPRK relations suggests that Pyongyang's behavior was only "insane" and "bizarre" when viewed through a Western lens, which refused to see the importance of the juche ideology in DPRK policymaking. Contemporary policymakers would thus be wise to consider their diplomatic approaches to the North in conjunction with this defining reality of the nation's existence.

Doing so, for example, might encourage them to see the recent wave of harsh rhetoric against the newly elected government of South Korea not as a prelude to greater confrontation but as a reflection of the overwhelming DPRK hostility towards sadaejuui(submissive service to the great power), which they see in South Korean president Lee Myung-bak's more pro-American stances.

It might help them to realize that while the Chinese do have some limited influence on the North, the DPRK's need to preserve an image of independent policymaking all but negates that influence during times of crisis.

It might encourage them to realize that the failure of Kim Jong-il to begin the process of publicly attaching juche to his heir, something his father had done for decades before his own death, does not bode well for political stability in the immediate future considering the rumors of Kim's current health problems.

And it might encourage them to recognize that North Korean insults and provocations—even the nuclear saber rattling—are directed more towards their domestic audience than their diplomatic opponents, and reflect a need to compensate for other shortcomings rather than an intention to provoke a larger international crisis.

But regardless of how the lessons of juche are applied by American policymakers, the most important thing they can do to better position themselves for successful diplomatic engagement with the North is to recognize that although the Cold War has ended, the leadership in North Korea and the ideology that justified its rule remain.

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Suggested Reading

Brazinsky, Gregg, Nation Building in South Korea (University Press of North Carolina, 2007)

Byun, Dae-Ho, North Korea’s Foreign Policy (Research Center for Peace and Unification of Korea, 1991)

Clough, Ralph, Embattled Korea (Westview Press, 1977)

Cumings, Bruce, Korea’s Place in the Sun (Norton, 1997)

Cumings, Bruce, North Korea: Another Country (New Press, 2004)

Koh, Byung Chul, The Foreign Policy Systems of North and South Korea (University of California Press, 1984)

Macdonald, Donald, U.S.-Korean Relations from Liberation to Self-Reliance (Westview Press, 1992)

Martin, Bradley, Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader (Thomas Dunne, 2004)

Oberdorfer, Don, The Two Koreas (Basic Books, 2002)

Scalapino, Robert, and Lee, Chong-Sik (eds.), Communism in Korea, 2 vols. (University of California Press, 1972)

Szalontai, Balazs, Kim Il-sung in the Khrushchev Era (Stanford, 2005)