In my research methods class, I assign David Kang’s fantastic article, “International Relations Theory and the Second Korean War.” Its a very well written, well argued piece that criticizes IR theorists who have repeatedly been wrong in predicting a second Korean War and then offers a detailed analysis of why the arguments are flawed. One of his key points is that many analysts smuggle in mis-placed assumptions about North Korea that leads them astray time and time again.

Today, we learn via the NY Times and National Security Archive that flawed assumptions have guided US policy toward North Korea for some time now, and it has left us in a bit of a bind. What today’s articles reveal, through declassified documents and interviews with former policy-makers, is that the US Government repeatedly made the same flawed assumption time and time again, which has helped to produce failure in our North Korea policy.

The NYT reports:

A team of government and outside experts convened by the Central Intelligence Agency concluded in 1997 that North Korea’s economy was deteriorating so rapidly that the government of Kim Jong-il was likely to collapse within five years, according to declassified documents made public on Thursday.

The panel described the isolated and impoverished country as being on the brink of economic ruin and said that “political implosion stemming from irreversible economic degradation seems the most plausible endgame for North Korea.” The majority among the group argued that the North’s government “cannot remain viable for the long term” and could fall within five years.

Nearly a decade later, the assessment has not been borne out, and its disclosure is evidence of past American misjudgments about the internal dynamics of North Korea’s closed society. American intelligence agencies still regard North Korea as among the toughest of intelligence targets and have made little progress inserting human spies into the country to steal secrets about the government….
“Conventional wisdom was completely wrong,” said Ambassador Wendy Sherman, who during the late 1990s was the Clinton administration’s coordinator for North Korea policy. “People constantly underestimated the staying power of the North Korean regime.”

The US Government has made this mistake not once, not twice, but now at least 3 times!

The belief that the North Korean economy was collapsing helped shaped White House thinking in 1994 when it promised to deliver light-water nuclear reactors to North Korea by 2003 in exchange for Pyongyang’s halting its covert nuclear weapons program. Senior Clinton administration officials said privately at the time that they did not expect Mr. Kim’s government to be in power by the time the United States had to make good on its pledge.

By early 1997, according to another document released Thursday, the C.I.A. had concluded that North Korea “cannot reverse its economic fortunes without sweeping reform that would take time to produce results that could unleash destabilizing forces.”

The documents disclosed a misjudgment by the C.I.A. that is the mirror image of an earlier one: while it was predicting an imminent North Korean collapse, the agency was still being criticized for failing in the 1980s to anticipate the speed with which the Soviet Union would eventually fall.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recently traveled across northeast Asia to build support for a slate of tough economic sanctions intended to punish North Korea for its recent nuclear test.

Publicly, Bush administration officials say that the sanctions can be useful for bringing North Korea back to the negotiating table. Privately however, some officials hold out the hope that the economic squeeze could work to undermine Mr. Kim.

Why do our efforts toward North Korea continually fail? One reason (not the only reason) is that we make promises we never intend to keep because we don’t think that North Korea will be around to collect on them. We think that we can outlast them and that with enough pressure, they will be gone and no longer a problem. Who ever though that North Korea would still be around, threatening the world with nuclear weapons, now 12 years after the Agreed Framework?

Some members of the C.I.A.-led team of experts interviewed Thursday said they never suspected in 1997 that North Korea’s neighbors would undertake such a concerted aid effort.

“Maybe I just don’t have a great imagination, but the idea that South Korea and Japan and other countries would come to North Korea’s rescue wasn’t one of the hypotheses that I was entertaining,” said Nicholas Eberstadt, a North Korea expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

Once again, its the failure of imagination so well documented in the 9-11 Commission report– who thought that things would play out this way? And yet, when they do, we are caught flat-footed, unprepared and unable to respond.

Perhaps its time to start making policy toward North Korea thinking that they might be around for a while as a nuclear state.

Or, as Luke said to Yoda: “I don’t believe it!!”

The Jedi Master: “And that is why you fail.”

Filed as:

Share