North Korea’s Culture of National Security

February 14, 2007

After five rounds of painstaking discussions, North Korea has finally taken major steps toward disarmament.

In our class reading material “The Culture of National Security”, Jepperson, Wendt, and Katzenstein argue that state’s behaviors and character are affected by its cultural and institutional environment as well as material. Using this argument to analyze North Korea’s position can help us understand Kim’s behaviors.

Both North and South Korea have very nationalistic cultures. Historically, Korea has been a small and relatively weak country surrounded by China, Japan and Russia, an environment in which Korea is destined to feel insecure. In today’s case, Kim Jung Il should feel even more so. The world has moved on with North Korea as a vulnerable state without much resource, holding on to an ideology that has been a proven failure in many other nations. N.K.’s nationalistic posture today may be a result of its historical, ideological and cultural background.

Nuclear deterrence is the crucial pillar supporting N.K.’s national security. However, the agreement announced by the six nations in Beijing shows that N.K. has agreed to disarm in return for fuel aid, illustrating N.K. has decided to give up its most important bargaining chips for something material. This clearly demonstrates N.K.’s security decisions are also affected by material factors.

To many people, Kim’s actions seem completely irrational and insane, but if we take into consideration the environment in which N.K. is embedded, what he is doing makes sense. Kim’s strong stance on the surface precisely reveals his lack of confidence, and desire to portray a strong nation to the world. His, as well as the nation’s, security policy is shaped by historical, ideological, cultural, institutional as well as material factors.

Although the topic of this posting is “North Korea’s Culture of National Security”, it may be changed to “North Korea’s Culture of National INSecurity”.

A few questions,

1. Given Kim has seldom kept his promises, do you think this time North Korea is giving up its nuclear deterrence for real? If not, why did they agree to disarm?
2. After N. K. did its nuclear test in October 2006, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to impose sanctions on the country. The international community froze N.K.-related bank accounts, and blocked luxurious goods trades with N.K. Do you think the UN sanction plays a crucial role in North Korea’s disarmament?
3. In the event N.K. take major steps in integrating with the international community, what effect would it have on Kim’s regime in terms of controlling the country and remaining in power? 4. Why do you think Kim needs nuclear deterrence? Do you think his insecurity is cultural, institutional or material?
5. From Kim’s perspective, do you think he sees the nuclear scheme as a defensive or offensive strategy?

By Meryam and Ada


8 Responses to “North Korea’s Culture of National Security”

  1. mark Says:

    Nothing will change in NK without regime change….this game of push and pull has gone on for way to long now for the leapard to change his spots, what we are seeing now is a complete repeat of at least two previous events in the last 17 years….

    on a slight tangent…how about a class trip to NK?
    Sign up below – all in the interest fo academia and our political therory awareness of course,..! I’m sure Dr Hu and Dr Cummings would sort it out!!

  2. anniesmho Says:

    It is always interesting to look at the dramatic development in the nuclear wrangle. The deal made earlier in the week looks like an encouraging success of international cooperation that all the parties involved have relative gains from it. However, I believe, as many analysts warned, that North Korea’s compromise this time does not necessarily mean that the wrangle is over with the following reasons:

    1. Short-term absolute gains
    International relations are all about who will gain what at which time. In this deal, North Korea agreed to freeze, suspend and disable the nuclear facilities in return for fuel aid. Such deal did not mean for a commitment of North Korea to completely abandon its pursuit of nuclear weapon. But North Korea is now in a bad need for energy aid and $$$. Their shutting down of the nuclear reactor would generate immediate gain for North Korea in the upcoming 60 days. The $$$ frozen in Macau ‘s bank account will be released. At the same time, North Korea’s gesture of cooperation helped them gaining an “improved” international status. North Korea is the winner in the short run, at least. But what is next after North Korea has got these gains materialized? My best guess is there will be continued disputes on how North Korea executes its promises in the long run.

    2. Kim’s personal traits
    Corresponding to the above point and the 1st question raised by Meryam and Ada, the path in the nuclear wrangle since 1994 did show that Kim was not able to keep its promises. I had little confidence that Kim is going to honour what he offered on the negotiation table.

    3. Regime preservation
    Maintaining regime stability is of No. 1 concern in North Korea. Material gains and improved international status would help strengthen Kim’s power in his country. Thus, the deal made serves well Kim’s personal interest and does not mean for a de-nuclearized North Korea in the future.

    The agreement is, perhaps, a temporary suspension of North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and it would allow for some time of stability in the East Asian region. It is likely to have some other dramatic developments in the coming months. Let’s wait and see.

  3. Ada Says:

    I’d love to sign up for the trip to NK!

    Annie, I think that by agreeing to the announcement made in Beijing, NK has showed that it is desperate for fuel and money. This is also a sign that international sanctions and freezing the account in Macao actually worked. If these methods worked, why not make it work even more?
    In the event that Kim breaks his promise again this time, would the international community, in particular China, continue diplomatic negotiations with NK in the future?

    Mark, do you think Beijing would like to see a regime change in NK?


  4. mark Says:

    I don’t belive anything “works” with North Korea.
    Ultimately, we are dealing with the whims of one man who is in absolute control of the place. So if he is in a good mood, great, but if not, people are screwed.

    He doesn’t need to do anything. He throws his toys out the pram whenever he is feeling lonely or lacking attention (ie testing missiles on 4th July).

    Everytime the world thinks there is a break-through, it falters….

    forgive me for being cynical about the latest round.

    Ada – Would China want to see Regime change? I’m not sure….it would be expected to be the major contributor by the US to support the place. And how to you life a country in the 21st Century so fast? This isn’t second world states post-1989 such as Estonia or Latvia. In North Korea there is massive poverty, little eduication about the outside world, no fuel, electricity – the people praying for regime change are Haliburtons, China Light and Power, and MacDonalds!

    anyway, how about that trip….?

  5. O C Lin Says:

    First of all, I am interested to join the trip to NK.

    I personally believe that Kim is not a reliable guy. Sooner or later he’ll break the agreement. If we go back to history, it is not the first time for Kim to play similar game. Whenever there is a crisis in his country, e.g. famine, Kim’ll pose a threat in the international community and get something in return. With these experiences, why should Kim bother to keep the promise.

    I guess Kim put up the nuclear threat because he would like to make use of this to exchange for something to settle the cry for resources in his country. When the crisis is over, the bad “boy” will be back again.

    So will there be changes in the regime? I believe so. Given the world is changing, the regime and the country has to change. Perhaps by following the route of other communist countries, NK will open up the economy first and then other changes will take place gradually.

  6. I am also interested in how the five countries can get the deal with Pyongyang to work in the future. Countries have their own agendas. This deters effective international co-operation. Obviously, there are still difficulties to have all countries compromise on the details of the Beijing agreement.

    For example, there is no clear statement about the respective responsibilities of each nation in economic terms. According to the Beijing agreement, China, Russia and South Korea will provide energy aid equal to 50,000 tonnes of fuel oil to North Korea under the first phase of its implementation. But the agreement does not clearly state how the aid is shared among the three countries. The same ambiguity is found in the second phase under which U.S. and Japan will join to supply energy aid. In fact, Japan had already insisted that it would not provide energy aid until there is a solution for the Japanese citizens kidnapped in the 1970s and 1980s. In response to Japan’s agenda, South Korea said that Japan could not “free-ride” the agreement in this way.

    Also, as said by you all, no one can ensure that Kim will really end all nuclear programmes. According to SCMP (on Feb. 14), the North Korean state media said that ‘the international pact required only a “temporary suspension” of the country’s nuclear facilities.’

    Lastly, I would like to say a few lines about Kim too. Instead of using the word “unreliable” to describe him, I would take Morgenthau’s (1978) idea that “[p]olitical ethics judges action by its political consequences”and say that Kim is smart and doing the right thing in his position. Kim knows the rules of the game well. Facing international sanctions, the power-starved North Korea could only choose to take a seemingly risky step to conduct nuclear test in order to get what it needs without letting his regime fall. Kim’s deviations from rationality may themselves be “elements in a coherent system of irrationality” (Morgenthau, 1978). (Haha, I just finished reading Morgenthau’s article…)

    “Nothing will change in North Korea without regime change.” I can’t agree more.

    Annie, your analysis is great!

  7. anniesmho Says:

    Ada, it is true that sanctions and freezing NK’s account in Macao worked in pushing Kim to somehow back down for at least a while. However, I am still skeptical about how the international community can continue with this same tactics while Kim is very skilful in “sneaking out”.

    Another interesting to share with you all is how a trip to NK will be like. It is indeed not difficult to go to visit NK but what you will see may disappoint you. My company brought a business mission NK 5 years ago. We had to organize through the official travel agent in NK. While you have to leave your passports and cell phones with the immigration at the airport once you step into the country, you would be taken to visit all the assigned official tourist spots with crowds of North Koreans waving their hands and smiling to you. The coach is taking the government-assigned routes for all foreign visitors and any change of itinerary is not allowed. You will be treated with the best food in North Korea. In the evening, you will be “locked” in the assigned hotel which is policed by the local authority to ensure you are “safe”……

    Sorry for writing too much that is not responding to the original theme of this posting. Happy Year of the Pig!

  8. wooi yee Says:

    Actually the Korean nuclear crisis has its origin from the Korean War in the 1950S. Check this article titled “N.Korean Nuclear Conflict has Deep Roots” on the Washington Post website. You might probably have a better understanding on the prolong Korean nuclear crisis.

    The author for the book “North Korea and the Bomb”, Michael J. Mazarr has also suggested that North Korea “through nuclear arms, to obtain a diplomatic leverage, to reduce dependence on China and Russia, to gain an edge over South Korea’s coming conventional superiority…”

    Kim Jung Il didn’t surrender himself to the material factors. In fact, he is manipulating the threats posted by nuclear development to gain what he wants.

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