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, it 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 a 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 Jong-un 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 policy makers. 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 and no major power can bear the costs. With each passing day, North Korea is moving closer and 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 our post-World War 2 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 under Kim Jong-un. As we approach the issue, we must take caution to steer clear of unhelpful myths about the nature of the North Korean state.