This summer North Korea will mark the 150th anniversary of a seminal event in the introverted nation’s history, namely, the beginning of today’s ongoing struggle against U.S. aggression.
This might seem odd, given that North Korea is not even 70 years old. But from Pyongyang’s perspective, today’s standoff over nuclear weapons development and missile technology actually began in August 1866.
In that year, a private U.S. merchant vessel, the General Sherman, sailed up the Taedong River to encourage (some might say force) the Koreans to open up to trade with the West. Living up to their epithet “Hermit Kingdom,” the Koreans strongly encouraged the ship to turn around. When it did not, the Koreans burned it and killed its crew on the banks of the river near Pyongyang. North Korean historians have since claimed that the grandfather of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, played a role in the incident, making him the first in a dynasty of opponents of U.S. imperialism.
In North Korea this story is remembered annually. In the United States it is rarely noted. Even the U.S. Marines’ invasion of Korea a few years later, in 1871, near Incheon in modern-day South Korea, is hardly noted, if at all, despite the 15 Congressional Medals of Honor earned by U.S. forces. Yet in South Korea (an American ally), there are memorials and rebuilt forts to highlight Korea’s ability to resist foreign intervention. There is a long and complicated history between the United States and Korea, something that shapes Pyongyang’s views of Washington.
The effect of differing historic lenses is often overlooked, but can be profound. Historical lenses also impact policy. The U.S. sees its policy toward North Korea through a counterproliferation lens: Washington wants to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program and prevent it from proliferating its nuclear technology. But North Korea sees the relationship very differently. It sees actions that fit into a bitter history of U.S. occupation and encroachment, a small nation squeezed between much larger powers, and resistance and overarching desire for independence. It is not that North Korea is right or wrong, just that its leaders view the world from a very different perspective — one heavily influenced by history and geography — just as U.S. leaders’ worldview is shaped by U.S. history and geography.
Understanding the North’s perspective will not solve the differences between the United States and North Korea, nor does it require pandering to Pyongyang. But it can provide additional insights into the likely North Korean reaction to U.S. policy initiatives.
Sanctions on North Korea reinforce its sense of embattlement, reinvigorating its desire to resist. U.S. military demonstrations remind Pyongyang that if it wants to preserve a modicum of independence, it must create a deterrent disproportionate to its size. And diplomatically isolating North Korea may also fail to engender the desired response — after all, intentional isolation has long been North Korea’s policy.
In building a new North Korean policy, one must understand Pyongyang’s fears, not necessarily to exploit them, but to mitigate them. Some would point to South Korea’s now-defunct “Sunshine Policy” of the late 1990s and early 2000s, which included investment and limited family reunions, to argue that “appeasing” the North does little to ease tensions or dissuade its nuclear and missile development. But one could just as easily cite past policies of sanctions and threats to argue the same point.
The challenge in shaping an effective North Korea policy is that it must be comprehensive, and so must include Japan, South Korea, China and Russia. But each of these countries has its own interests, priorities and domestic constituencies to deal with, and North Korea is adept at playing off of the differences between these powers.
An effective policy must also be consistent, not only between administrations, but within the span of a single administration. North Korean leadership serves far longer than individual U.S. presidents, whom they are skilled at waiting out.
Finally, an effective North Korean policy must have small, definable goals. Barring direct military intervention, a future policy could best be served through engagement, a stepped approach and a clear set of definable end goals — all while reminding the North that even its best attempts at a viable nuclear deterrent are ultimately ineffective. In this, the counsel of China’s Mao regarding his Korea strategy is worth recalling: “Eat sticky candy in small bites.”
• Rodger Baker is vice president of Asia Pacific Analysis at Stratfor, a global intelligence and advisory firm based in Austin, Texas.
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