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North Korean Foreign Relations in the Post-Cold War World

North Korean Foreign Relations in the Post-Cold War World - Cover

Authored by Dr. Samuel S. Kim.

April 2007

123 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The author examines North Korea’s foreign relations with China, Russia, Japan, the United States, and South Korea during the post-Cold War era. North Korea’s extended and heavy reliance on foreign aid and assistance —both military and economic—in the first 4 decades came from China, the Soviet Union, and communist bloc states; in the past 2 decades, this aid has come from countries including China, South Korea, and the United States. He argues that central to understanding North Korea’s international behavior in the 21st century is the extent to which the policies of the United States have shaped that behavior. Although some readers may not agree with all of Dr. Kim’s interpretations and assessments, they nevertheless will find his analysis simulating and extremely informative.


Any attempt to understand North Korean foreign relations in the post–Cold War world is to be confronted with a genuine puzzle of both real-world and theoretical significance. On the one hand, in the post–Cold War era North Korea—officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK)—has been seen by many as a failed state on the verge of explosion or implosion. On the other hand, not only has North Korea survived, despite a rapid succession of external shocks—the crumbling of the Berlin Wall, the end of both the Cold War and superpower rivalry, and the demise of the Soviet Union—all on top of a series of seemingly fatal internal woes, including spreading famine, deepening socialist alienation, and the death of its founder, the “eternal president” Kim Il Sung. But with its nuclear and missile brinkmanship diplomacy, it has become a focus of regional and global prime-time coverage.

Paradoxically, Pyongyang seems to have turned its weakness into strength by playing its “collapse card,” driving home the point that it is anything but a Fourth World banana republic that would disappear quietly without a big fight or a huge mess, a mess that no outside neighboring power would be willing or able to clean up. In fact, not only has North Korea, the weakest of the six main actors in the region, continued to exist, but it has also catapulted itself to the position of primary driver of Northeast Asian geopolitics through its strategic use of nuclear brinkmanship diplomacy. From this transformed geopolitical landscape emerges the greatest irony of the region: today, in the post–Cold War world, North Korea seems to have a more secure sovereignty itself, while posing greater security risks to its neighbors, than has ever been the case in recent history.

The starting premise of this monograph is that for all the uniqueness of the regime and its putative political autonomy, post–Kim Il Sung North Korea has been subject to the same external pressures and dynamics that are inherent in an increasingly interdependent and interactive world. The foreign relations that define the place of North Korea in the international community today are the result of the trajectories that Pyongyang has chosen to take—or was forced to take—given its national interests and politics. In addition, the choices of the North Korean state are constrained by the international environment in which they interact, given its location at the center of Northeast Asian geopolitics in which the interests of the Big Four (China, Russia, Japan, and the United States) inevitably compete, clash, mesh, coincide, etc., as those nations pursue their course in the region. North Korea per se is seldom of great importance to any of the Big Four, but its significance is closely tied to and shaped by the overall foreign policy goals of each of the Big Four Plus One (South Korea). Thus North Korea is seen merely as part of the problem or part of the solution for Northeast Asia.

On the basis of historical and comparative analysis of the conduct of North Korean foreign policy, especially the turbulent relations with the Big Four plus the relationship with South Korea, the main objective here is to track, explain, and assess North Korea’s foreign policy behavior in the post–Cold War and post–Kim Il Sung era, using a behavior-centered approach. What is most striking about post–Cold War North Korean foreign policy is not the centrality of the Big Four but rather the extent to which the United States has figured in the major changes and shifts in Pyongyang’s international behavior. North Korea has sought and found a new troika of life-supporting geopolitical patrons in China, South Korea, and Russia, and also a new pair of life-supporting geo-economic patrons in China and South Korea, even as America’s dominant perception of North Korea has shifted significantly from that of a poor nation in need of a life-support system to that of an aggressive nation representing a mortal threat. As if in fear of the DPRK’s “tyranny of proximity,” however, all three of North Korea’s contiguous neighbors—China, Russia, and South Korea—have tended to be reluctant to support Washington’s hard-line strategy.

Although the future of North Korea is never clear, the way the outside world—especially the Big Four plus Seoul—responds to Pyongyang is closely keyed to the way North Korea responds to the outside world. North Korea’s future is malleable rather than rigidly predetermined. This nondeterministic image of the future of the post–Kim Il Sung system opens up room for the outside world to use whatever leverage it might have to nudge North Korean leaders toward opting for a particular future scenario over another less benign in the coming years.

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