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Don’t believe all the myths about North Korea

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No country annoys its neighbors like North Korea. With its fourth and most recent nuclear test, North Korea has, once again, put itself in front of all major powers in Asia and beyond.

As usual, most commentary has focused on whether North Korea was bluffing with a nuclear test and whose failures should be blamed for this increasingly disturbing situation. These debates are not new. For policymakers, the hour is urgent: What can be done about North Korea and its seemingly crazy dictatorship? Before we can even begin to answer this question, it’s best to take care to not fall prey to these four common myths about North Korea:

First, is the myth that North Korea under the young leader Kim Jong Un is a crazy and irrational actor. In fact, in reality, he is far from this. Actually all the evidence suggest that North Korea and the Kim family have always been rational — maybe too rational. Everything North Korea has done so far centers around the central purpose of all countries in an anarchical international environment: survival. We can say this is the case for North Korea especially because its survival, from the perspective of its leaders, is under serious threat. A nuclear test, if successful, can greatly increase the likelihood of the regime’s survival. This doesn’t change the fact that a nuclear North Korea might be bad news for other countries in Asia.

Second, there is the myth that the Kim family is deeply resented by the North Korean people and, as such, the regime’s implosion is imminent. Again, this is a Western myth. North Korea, in a way, is a unique country because of its own history and culture. There is little sense of it being a “nation-state” as most other countries understand the term. In North Korea, the Kim family is the nation and the state. Thus, to defend the Kim family is to defend the very idea of this nation-state. There is no other way to imagine North Korea. Of course, there are some brave North Koreans who try to stand up for their freedoms. But do not count on them bringing about regime change. Any substantial reforms in the future will likely come from a top-down process. In this sense, we should expect the Kim regime to stay around for a while.

Third, a myth persists that China, as North Korea’s largest trading partner, holds the ultimate key to the solution of the North Korea problem. This is a very simplistic view of China-North Korea relations, if not totally wrong. While it is true that China perhaps has more influence on North Korea than any other countries like Russia or the United States, we should be reminded that North Korea is an independent country with its own will and agency. For the last three years, North Korea has repeatedly offended China with its aggressive policies toward other Asian countries, thus putting China’s national interests in danger. The fact that Kim still has not met with Chinese President Xi Jinping is the best evidence of a rather cold relationship between the two. China has made it very clear that its North Korea policy will only follow its national interests, not North Korea’s.

Fourth, we must reckon with the myth that sanctions will work on North Korea. Unfortunately, this is perhaps still the biggest myth among policymakers. Economic sanctions will not have any major effect on the North Korean economy, as evidenced by the 1990s. Meanwhile, military action is simply too costly. With each passing day, North Korea is moving closer to becoming a fully functional nuclear power.

If all of these myths leave you pessimistic, then the good news is that even a nuclear North Korea will remain a rational actor. Nuclear weapons in the postwar era have functioned as purely defensive weapons. North Korea, in the meantime, will remain a weak and insecure country, with or without nuclear weapons. The international community can adopt a “containment” strategy toward North Korea and encourage domestic reforms. As we approach the issue, we must take caution to steer clear of unhelpful myths about the nature of the North Korean state.

Dingding Chen is an assistant professor of government and public administration at the University of Macau. © 2016, The Diplomat. Distributed by the Tribune Content Agency

  • solodoctor

    Assuming this author is correct about the four myths it would help if he spelled out in more detail what a ‘containment’ policy would actually look like. What would the USA, S Korea, and Japan actually do with/towards the North? How about China? Would it do anything different, more, less than these 3 other nations?

    How would other countries encourage ‘domestic reforms’ when the Kims are so entrenched, independent, and insecure? They seem receptive to engagement for awhile. But then they act out in some kind of provocative way as if to declare their independence. Some have proposed that the engagement attempted in 1990’s via KEDO was fruitful until 2001 when Bush declared that N Korea was part of the axis of evil. Should that kind of economic engagement be tried again?

  • 99Pcent

    Just another academic barking for the CCP and lapdog NK. Perhaps Dingding would like to go and live in NK for the rest of his life. Garbage like this should not be published.

  • CaptainAsia

    These are not myths, they are truths. People in North Korea are being executed by the hundreds of thousands and dying of hunger. Kim has threatened to nuke America and its allies. How convenient this author is in his selection of points. I could write a similar article about Hitler or the destruction of Tibet by the Chinese communists.

    • Jonathan Fields

      You didn’t actually read the article, did you?

    • Jonathan Fields

      You didn’t actually read the article, did you?

  • Guoxi Zeng

    Don’t believe the myths promulgated by Chen Dingding.

  • Paul Johnny Lynn

    I agree to a point, specifically that neither N.K., nor the Kims are crazy. When they fired off a few old missiles into the ocean, back in the early 2000’s, the media and people here ran around flapping their arms and screaming about nuclear annihilation. Trouble is, anyone who knows anything about weapons, HAD THEY BEEN ASKED could’ve told all and sundry that those missiles were 1) incapable of carrying a nuclear payload, and 2) incapable of reaching Japan. Later, when missiles were launched again, Patriot anti-missile batteries were deployed in the centre of Tokyo. However, they were quite clearly labelled in English INERT. In other words, not “live”, not effective, incapable of shooting anything down. Both sides know this is a game to keep the plebs scared, that’s all.

  • Liars N. Fools

    The American myth is that it is up to China to do something about North Korea. The Chinese counter-myth is that the Americans bear most of the responsibility.

    The reality is that both China and we have major responsibilities and blaming each other is not helpful. So there needs to be some deep discussions among the Chinese, South Koreans, and us in particular with input from the Japanese and the Russians too on this. This is a failure of the approaches undertaken by all jointly and severally, and only through an agreed to approach jointly and severally is there any possibility of putting genie back into the bottle — and that will not be easy by all these myth discussions.

  • 151E

    I have to wonder if 99Pccent, Guoxi Zeng, or CaptainAsia actually read the above opinion piece.

    Mr. Chen did not defend North Korea nor deny the frequent famines and political purges. He simply argued that:

    (1) N Korea is not an irrational actor (their pursuit of nuclear weapons is a largely defensive posture meant to ensure regime survival)

    (2) N Korean citizens are largely supportive of their government (likely as a result near total media control and indoctrination since birth)

    (3) China doesn’t have as much leverage over N Korea as many in the West assume (what certainly is true is that China doesn’t want millions of refugees flooding over its border should the N Korean regime collapse)

    (4) sanctions are unlikely to work (considering that N Korea has been under sanctions for over 50 years, it’s fair to question how effective further sanctions are likely to be)

    Mr. Chen finally concludes that, despite possessing nuclear weapons, North Korea will remain a weak and insecure country, and that other nations need to develop a well thought out containment strategy. That hardly sounds like a propaganda piece to me.

    It is import to study your opponent with clear eyes, to understand what motivates them. And it’s a mistake to simplistically dismiss the other as irrational or evil, as that essentially precludes all non-military options.

  • 151E

    I have to wonder if 99Pccent, Guoxi Zeng, or CaptainAsia actually read the above opinion piece.

    Mr. Chen did not defend North Korea nor deny the frequent famines and political purges. He simply argued that:

    (1) N Korea is not an irrational actor (their pursuit of nuclear weapons is a largely defensive posture meant to ensure regime survival)

    (2) N Korean citizens are largely supportive of their government (likely as a result near total media control and indoctrination since birth)

    (3) China doesn’t have as much leverage over N Korea as many in the West assume (what certainly is true is that China doesn’t want millions of refugees flooding over its border should the N Korean regime collapse)

    (4) sanctions are unlikely to work (considering that N Korea has been under sanctions for over 50 years, it’s fair to question how effective further sanctions are likely to be)

    Mr. Chen finally concludes that, despite possessing nuclear weapons, North Korea will remain a weak and insecure country, and that other nations need to develop a well thought out containment strategy. That hardly sounds like a propaganda piece to me.

    It is import to study your opponent with clear eyes, to understand what motivates them. And it’s a mistake to simplistically dismiss the other as irrational or evil, as that essentially precludes all non-military options.

    • Jonathan Fields

      They definitely didn’t read the article.

    • Jonathan Fields

      They definitely didn’t read the article.

  • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

    A distinction should be made between having a “rationale” and being “rational”. There is almost always a “rationale” behind every human irrational act.

    What is special (but certainly not unique in the world) about Kim Jong Un is his absolute heriditary dictatorship and complete rejection of change. Quite a difference from other Asian countries with cetralized communist-style governments in their background (e.g., China, Vietnam, Burma) which always had or developed strong comittee style governments so that they did not rely entirely on a single persons judgement, a strategy with varying degrees of success but far exceeding NK. Kim Jong Un is going in exactly the opposite direction, purging many of his advisors, and through draconian political prison camps stifling any possibility of orderly progressive change. It is a house of cards.

    What that means is uncertainty. How and when change will occur is very difficult to predict, and that makes NK possesion of nuclear weapons especially troublesome.