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Analysis | The Role of Reputations in US-North Korean Relations

Despite the complexities of such tense relations between the United States and North Korea, there have been clear patterns as to why each country reacts to the other in the way that they do.

“North Korea – Kim Il-Sung statue” by Roman Harak is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Since the Korean War, tensions between the United States and North Korea have persisted, and time after time, both sides have found themselves amidst crises with the other. Despite the complexities of such tense relations between the two nations, there have been clear patterns as to why each country reacts to the other in the way that they do.

Although Western media paints a picture of the Kim family as a crazy power-hungry regime willing to defy the United States with their nuclear capabilities, once dissected, their actions amidst crises do not seem as out of pocket. And to the North Koreans, the United States is depicted as the Western power primed to take down their precious regime. Much of the conflict and reactions between the two states can be explained by each other’s perceived reputations of one another as they anticipate what the other will do based on past actions.

Van Jackson, an Associate Professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, in his book Rival Reputations: Coercion and Credibility in US-North Korea Relations describes “reputation” in this manner as the “casual relevance of the past to the future mediated through the perception of others” and have been built up over the past 70 years through various cases of conflict.

These differing reputations on both sides of the US-North Korea relationship have played a major role because they have affected how each country responds to one another in times of crises and international struggle. However, while reputations between the two have historically bred conflict and tension, the U.S. should rethink its reputation and convert it into a tool to wager peace and cooperation between the two. 

Reputation affecting the relations and dynamics between the two nations has been rooted from nearly the beginning. At the turn of the decade in 1950, Kim Il-Sung, North Korea’s first leader and the founder of the Kim Regime, longed to unify the Korean Peninsula under a singular banner of communism, hoping to achieve such through violence over peace and brokered war for two years.

Despite knowing that the United States was an enemy of the spread of communism, Kim and other top officials for North Korea did not think any form of American intervention would take place. While they partially thought this was because “in their worldview, a mere ‘civil war’ could not lead to armed conflict with the United States, the reputation about the Americans played an arguably larger part. North Korean leaders assessed that America would not intervene based on the United States’ perceived military and diplomatic interests.

They assumed this much from past American actions, or more accurately, the lack thereof during the Chinese Civil War during the 1940s. An anonymous North Korean General from the period gives insight to their reasoning in this, saying “‘the Americans would never participate in the war. We were sure in this…the Americans had not participated in the civil war in China. America was losing the giant, China, but still had not intervened. America would not participate in such a small war on the Korean peninsula’”.

Because of the inaction of the Americans in the Chinese Civil War, a major conflict in which the U.S. would have felt threatened by the advent of communism, it is easy to see how North Korea would have presumed a repeat of inaction in the relatively “small war” between the North and the South. Kim Il Sung even said “[the United States] left China without fighting; the same approach can be expected in Korea”, further demonstrating previous US policy influenced North Korea’s expectations of the US.

While conventional wisdom might assume that the more dominant power – in this case, the United States – would be able to subdue and impose its will onto the lesser nation (North Korea), the nature of relations between the United States and North Korea proves this not to be the case. Patterns of crises have plagued the relations between the two and in multiple instances, North Korea has threatened worrisome rhetoric without much follow-up, and because of this, the U.S. has largely seen these threats as uncredible. For example, in March of 2013, the KCNA, or the North Korean Central News Agency, threatened the United States with a nuclear attack should they convince the UN Security Council to impose economic sanctions to punish the nuclear activity of Pyongyang.

Much to the North Koreans’ dismay, the United Nations proceeded to pass these sanctions, undoubtedly at the will of the U.S. However, the North’s threats of a “nuclear attack” never happened. Another example took place a year later when The Interview, a comedy film about North Korea starring Seth Rogen and James Franco, came to the attention of the North Korean government. Sony Pictures, which had produced The Interview, became the target of North Korean cyberattacks, though they were quite minor. When consulting US officials, however, Sony was told that “‘This is typical North Korean bullying, likely without follow up’ and that while they may engage in cyberattacks, physical attacks were unlikely given the ‘North Korean pattern of behavior going back to the 1980s’ and because it would be ‘beyond North Korea’s capabilities.’”

Why North Korea fears The Interview - BBC Culture
Randall Park played Kim-Jong Un in Sony’s The Interview Photo Credit: Sony Entertainment

Sure enough, despite physical threats from these North Korean hackers as the movie approached its release date, “US government officials declared the threats wholly incredible” and “the film was released without violence.” The threats from the North Koreans during this occurrence are what the US has found itself accustomed to. As shown by these cases, the US has done little in these instances to improve the hostility and showed an unwillingness to stand up to North Korea, undoubtedly sending the message to Pyongyang that ‘”(1 )the United States lacked the resolve to impose military force on it in response to provocations, and (2) the United States communicated honestly about its interests on the Korean Peninsula and only threatened military force when it perceived that its interests warranted it.”

For example, in the case of the 2013 crisis, the US completely ignored the warnings of a North Korean threat, and although it worked out in the sense that the US was able to anticipate no follow up on the part of Pyongyang based on North Korea’s reputation, had there been following up, there could have been destructive consequences. This passivity on the part of the United States has allowed the North Koreans to continually make these threats without strict backlash and punishment, even though those threats are empty more often than not.

By not taking them seriously, the United States risks increased provocation as Kim Jong Un desires to be respected and feared by leaders across the world. Scoffing at and disrespecting his threats will undoubtedly lead to increased hostility on the part of the North Koreans as they seek to be respected on the world stage. The same trend continues with The Interview example as US officials told Sony Pictures to disrespect the threats of the North Koreans on the basis that a physical attack was unlikely because of North Korea’s reputation for its lack of follow-through. These examples perfectly demonstrate which most crises between the countries have played out and this pattern has characterized the tense relations between the two since the 1950s. 

The reputation of the respective states has played a major role and has affected both sides. As for the United States, because of North Korea’s reputation for threats lacking follow-up, the US has found itself in a tricky situation because it underestimates the credibility of the North Koreans and has been somewhat complacent in instances, making Pyongyang less predictable in its strategies and intentions. From the North Korean perspective, the US has continuously acted as an “honest broker”, its actions aligning with its rhetoric and for the most part, the US has almost always sought to resolve issues with North Korea on a much more diplomatic and peaceful level than what the North Koreans are seemingly willing to do.

This has allowed for the US to become more predictable and allows North Korea to negotiate on its terms rather than adhere to the flimsy demands of the United States, explaining why a weaker North Korea has been able to stand up to a more dominant the United States. The USS Pueblo crisis of January 1968 is arguably one of the most famous between the United States and North Korea and serves as a great example of how reputation has affected each state. During the U.S.S Pueblo crisis, the North Koreans seized the naval ship while collecting intelligence on the North Koreans after years of threatening rhetoric from Pyongyang directed at Washington for doing so.

However, the US was caught off guard as it did not take the threat seriously because of the reputation North Korea had built as a state without follow-up to its threats. The US, once again, reserved itself from firm military action and attempted to negotiate, calling for a peaceful resolution without violence. The resolution was delayed for more than a year, however, due to the simple fact that the North Koreans could negotiate on their terms as they did not anticipate strict US action against them since the US hadn’t already taken any. The case of the USS Pueblo shows the United States’ reputation of unwillingness to take a firm stance after underestimating the North Koreans. The crisis did “temporarily accrue a [DPRK] reputation for resolve” [its] threats were credible.”

Because of this out-of-character attack from North Korea, it is easy to see this as a sporadic and random assault on the United States military. Due to this, we observe the occurrence of a phenomenon called the “power of the weak” which makes the argument that lesser nations can still exert influence as “Weakness does not only entail liabilities; for the small power, it also creates certain bargaining assets.

Typically, the smaller the state, the more it can take large-scale patterns of international politics for granted since nothing it does can affect them very much, the asymmetry in “attention” and the cohesion of concentration” between North Korea and the U.S. is beneficial to Pyongyang. These issues are the only major foreign policy issues that North Korea has to cope with, while they are only two of many vital foreign policy issues for the U.S.”

The mistakes during the USS Pueblo crisis on behalf of the US government suggests that whether through diplomatic or military means, a more firm stance from the US might have been necessary to ward off the threat of North Korea and accelerate negotiations in the US’s favor. 

Because the reputations of both sides have affected their perceptions of each other to a great extent in how they respond to each other, reputation can also have the potential to foster better relations. US scholars have long understood that North Korea is a highly self-reliant state in both practice and ideology, and it is this isolationist policy, known as Juche, that has given North Korea the nickname “The Hermit Kingdom.” For decades, North Korean leadership held the sentiment of staying isolated and unwilling to work with foreign nations that they see as a threat to their sovereignty – primarily the United States. The Kim Regime’s greatest goal is to maintain power, and since it is their priority, they will do anything to achieve it. Many experts believe that the primary motivation behind their nuclear weapons development is to ward off threats from Western powers. T

hey are confident that by staying isolated and independent of others with the power of nuclear weapons and WMDs (weapons of mass destruction), they can remain in control and maintain sovereignty over the state. From this, the United States has to assume that a forced attempt to denuclearize North Korea is entirely out of the picture. Kim Jong Un, a man who has a sneakily good knowledge of the West given his studies in Europe at a relatively young age, has seen leaders like Muammar Qadhafi and Suddam Hussein give up their nuclear arms programs to the United States only to have their regimes fall.

Because of this, the United States must accept that Kim Jong Un will have nuclear arms in his possession until he is guaranteed assurance that the United States or any other Western power will not lead a crusade to bring down his regime. This will require multiple steps on the behalf of the United States. First off, though it would be a huge undertaking, the US should seek to publicly display an attempt to familiarize the American people as a whole with North Korea to remove any false perceived images of the North.

By publicly educating experts, policymakers, and citizens the United States could be in a prime position to build a reputation for itself as a nation that seeks to understand. If the United States could familiarize itself with the leadership of North Korea and its intentions, it could lead to more decisive policies as to how the United States should project itself, either as a strong-willed power of the world to ward off threats in some scenarios or as one willing to negotiate for peace with Pyongyang.

Secondly, once the United States starts to show more goodwill in its cooperations with North Korea with foreign aid investment and economic development assistance, the more it will build itself a resume of willingness to compromise and show faith to the North Koreans by letting them keep their nuclear arms for the time being. This could potentially open up talks to denuclearization – a long term goal of the United States for peace on the Korean peninsula – as the North Koreans could feel more inclined to it if the United States shows faith and thus, there is a possibility Kim Jong Un will be more open to assurance that the West will not bring down the regime.

By doing so, there is the hope of breaking the pattern of crises between two nuclearly armed countries and ridding of the constant threatening rhetoric and tragic events.  

References:

 Edward A. Olsen, “U.S.–North Korean Relations: Foreign Policy Dilemmas,” North Korean Review 1 (2005): [Page #], http://www.jstor.org/stable/43908660.

 John Speed Meyers, “Reputation Matters: Evidence from the Korean War,” Journal of International and Area Studies 22, no. 2 (2015), http://www.jstor.org/stable/43748523.

Van Jackson, RIVAL REPUTATIONS: Coercion and Credibility in Us -North Korea Relations (Place of publication not identified: CAMBRIDGE UNIV Press, 2017.

 Kyung-Ae Park, “North Korea’s Defensive Power and U.S.-North Korea Relations,” Pacific Affairs 73, no. 4 (2000): [Page #], https://doi.org/10.2307/2672443.

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