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Understanding the North Korea Problem: Why It Has Become the "Land of Lousy Options"

Understanding the North Korea Problem: Why It Has Become the 'Land of Lousy Options' - Cover

Authored by William A Boik.

July 2011

82 Pages

Brief Synopsis

This monograph provides a timely analysis and thoughtful insights into the challenges faced by the United States in developing a strategy for North Korea. The author examines the complex history of U.S. policy toward North Korea over the last decade that has left the United States in a position of having virtually no influence over the country. He addresses the complicated regional concerns and interests of North Korea’s neighbors and how these concerns impact on each of their approaches to North Korea. Most importantly, he looks at how the North Korean culture and history have influenced the attitudes of North Korean society and their relationship with other countries. He concludes by pointing out that despite the numerous challenges, the United States must develop a strategy focused on engaging Pyongyang if we expect to have any influence over the future direction of events in North Korea.


This monograph is intended to generate discussion on the challenges of developing a coordinated U.S. strategy toward North Korea. It begins by looking at U.S. policy and actions toward North Korea and the situation on the Korean Peninsula over the past decade. This monograph examines the regional interests of China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and the United States in relation to North Korea and the impact that North Korean culture and traditions have had on North Korean society.

Based on this analysis, the monograph recommends that, if we expect to have any influence over events in North Korea, U.S. policy must emphasize engagement with Pyongyang. This engagement should include discussions, negotiations, cultural exchanges, and even diplomatic relations. Only by engaging North Korea on multiple levels, will we begin to understand each other, and only then will we be able to exercise some level of positive influence on them. This will not be easy, nor will it happen quickly.

North Korea is a difficult nation to negotiate with and often reacts in a manner that outside observers see as counterproductive. Although it will not be easy, a policy of actively engaging North Korea will eventually provide the United States with a forum to exert a limited degree of influence on the Pyongyang leadership. It will also give us a better understanding of what is actually happening inside North Korea. Ultimately, we must keep in mind that, as in the case of Eastern Europe, events on the ground are likely to outpace any planning we do. It is extremely critical that we have both an awareness of events as they are occurring and the flexibility of action to ensure appropriate measured responses.

A policy of engagement toward the North is also a double-edged sword for the Pyongyang leadership. North Korea’s biggest weakness may, in fact, be opening up to the West. When this begins to happen, there is significant potential for the regime to be weakened. Yet North Korea’s current economic situation leaves its leadership few options. The leadership seems to understand that they must work with the United States and other nations in order to get assistance. However, the more North Korea’s population is able to see and have contact with Americans and other Westerners, the more they will start to see what they really do not have and cannot achieve under the current regime. The challenge will then become one of controlling the North Korean population’s expectations and grievances so they do not resort to violence.

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