What motivates North Korean behavior—and hence the appropriate response–is a topic of perennial dispute. Some see the North’s missile and nuclear programs as motivated by the strategic goals of the removal of US forces from the Korean peninsula and unification on Pyongyang’s terms, while others continue to regard these programs as bargaining chips. Yet others view these developments as an outcome of North Korea’s internal politics (“military-first”), or as a point of national pride and regime legitimacy.
How one assesses these potential motivations informs one’s policy response to the Commission of Inquiry report and assessment of the likely impact of various alternatives.
As former Roh Administration national security advisor Ra Jong-yil has made clear, they pursued engagement as an end in itself, rejecting Kim Dae-jung’s conception of engagement as an instrument to establish the economic and social preconditions for national reconciliation and eventual unification. Instead, the desired end-state of peaceful co-existence (without any expectation of unification) was pursued through what amounted to a policy of appeasement. This approach was sometimes justified by the argument that conflicts often emerge when actors are “humiliated” and seek revenge, or lash out as a result. So by giving North Korea the status and prestige that it desperately desires, the likelihood of conflict is decreased. If this view is correct: what North Korea craves is not military leverage over Seoul, Tokyo, and eventually Washington, but rather recognition, then de-recognition would hit Pyongyang where it hurt, albeit at the risk of inflaming tensions.
Isolated States by South African political scientist Deon Geldenhuys is a classic work on de- or non-recognition of “ostracized” states. Channels of externally imposed isolation could include diplomatic relations; IGO membership and conference participation; international treaties; official visits; international censure; trade, investment, financial, and technology boycotts or sanctions; aid; military agreements, representation and visits; arms transfers; military aid and cooperation; cultural agreements and INGO membership; travel, tourism, air and sea and other transport links; and sport, art, entertainment, academic and other exchanges. In short, a panoply of opportunities exist through which to express disapproval and impose isolation. Geldenhuys points out that the salience of these various sanctioning possibilities may vary in interesting ways: in the case of apartheid-era South Africa, socio-cultural deprivations of isolation may have had a more profound impact than the economic consequences of boycotts, a point frequently made in retrospect by white South Africans who lived through the apartheid period.
A number of responses by the isolated state are possible. One would be defiance: the refusal to submit to external demands and instead the pursuit of support from like-minded states. North Korea’s reliance on China and an informal coalition of anti-Western states like Iran can be seen in these terms. A second possible response would be compromise, requiring accommodation by both the targeting and targeted states. Capitulation would be a third possible response. A final possibility would effectively amount to capitulation by the international community: the targeting states would eventually throw up their hands and re-admit the isolated state into the fold as-is. The North’s repeated invocation of itself as a nuclear state can be read as an attempt to achieve this outcome.
One of the more unusual aspects of the North Korean case is that most countries regard isolation as imposing costs. As a consequence, they are motivated to normalize their status, though Geldenhuys does not examine the conditions under which states may be more likely to adopt one response strategy or another. In the case of North Korea, because the regime’s key constituencies appear to be defined extremely narrowly, it is quite possible that the government would be willing to accept severe costs, at least in certain dimensions, to maintain the status quo. One useful topic for future research might be to examine systematically the extensive menu of options listed above to identify “cheap” measures which could push elite decision making in the preferred direction.
A final consideration is the precedents actions against North Korea may set. Here Washington’s concern is that an aggressive campaign of de-recognition could establish precedent for similar behavior against US allies, most obviously Israel.
For my part, I have never found the “status” argument particularly persuasive, and hence I am not sure that externally imposed isolation would have the desired effect. But if one is going to argue that what Pyongyang really craves is status and recognition, then the denial of such recognition is surely one of the possible responses to the Commission of Inquiry’s report.