Newly Available Evidence Offers Insights into North Korea's Thinking, Actions

Apr 25, 2005

By Dana Steinberg, Wilson Center staff writer

North Korea is an enigma. Little information has circulated in the West about this country of nearly 23 million people—-also called the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea)—yet it sits squarely with Iran and Iraq on the U.S.-proclaimed "axis of evil" and purportedly possesses nuclear weapons technology. This keeps the DPRK on the U.S. radar screen, but political isolation and a dearth of information has inhibited our understanding of this strategically important country.

The old adage "history is the key to the present" is particularly apt in this instance, as newly available historical evidence sheds much needed light on the intentions and motivations of North Korea's leadership. Over the past three years, the Wilson Center's Cold War International History Project (CWIHP), with support from the Korea Foundation, has uncovered, translated, analyzed, and published scores of archival documents from North Korea's former allies.

These documents—-from Russian, Chinese, East German, Hungarian, and Czech archives—-span a half-century and include transcripts of candid conversations between Kim Il Sung and his fellow heads of state within the Soviet bloc, as well as reports and analyses written by Communist diplomats. For the first time, scholars are gaining a clearer picture of North Korea's actions and perceptions from the 1940s through the 1980s. The lessons learned from this new evidence can assist the United States in making sounder, more realistic policy decisions.

"These documents from North Korea's former allies give us a record of what constrained the DPRK-—what worked and what did not," said Kathryn Weathersby, senior associate and coordinator of CWIHP's Korea Initiative. As U.S. policymakers differ on whether to take a hard or soft approach toward North Korea, this new material brings a level of reality to that debate, she said, "by revealing the evolution of North Korean thinking about the use of military force against South Korea and about the perception of threats to the DPRK."

Many of the findings, including those discussed here, can be found in an article by Weathersby, "The Enigma of the North Korean Regime: Back to the Future?" that will be published in the spring 2005 issue of the ILR Review of the Ilmin International Relations Institute in Seoul. The article will also be available on the CWIHP website.

The new evidence reveals a pattern of constraints that remained in place as long as the Soviet Union existed. Although the situation in North Korea has changed profoundly since the Soviet collapse in 1991, "to understand how the present leader, Kim Jong-Il, and his associates think, it's helpful to know the mental framework within which they were educated and groomed for their present positions," said Weathersby.

One of the central concerns today surrounds the danger that North Korea might use military force against South Korea, despite some 30,000 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea to deter such a move. After the Korean War of 1950-53, the Soviet Union had a vested interest in preventing such an attack, in that it could have ignited a war between the two blocs. Dependent on Soviet economic, political, and military support, North Korea was forced to follow the parameters the Soviet Union set down in 1949 to regulate the DPRK's use of military force.

The "Stalin formula" had two main tenets. First, North Korea could not decide on its own whether to invade South Korea, but had to consult its allies and await decision from Moscow. Second, North Korea was permitted to defend itself from a U.S. or South Korean attack. The DPRK took full advantage of this latter point, said Weathersby, "a loophole that inadvertently encouraged Kim Sung Il to stage provocations disguised as attacks from the South."

Thus, in January 1968, North Korea sent 30 commandos disguised as South Korean guerillas to the Blue House in Seoul to kill South Korea's President Park Chung Hee. Kim Il Sung had hoped this action would incite an uprising in the South and a subsequent request for military aid from the North, thus leading to reunification. But the commandos were captured, all but one were killed, and the failed plot was exposed. To divert attention from this embarrassment, North Korea seized an American intelligence ship, the USS Pueblo, charging U.S. aggression. One crewmember was killed, several wounded, and the 80 surviving crewmembers were taken hostage for 11 months.

In the United States, the Johnson administration assumed the Soviet Union was behind the Pueblo attack and took steps to reinforce its military strength along the Soviet border. The new evidence, however, reveals that North Korea did not consult any of its allies before the attack.

"The Soviets were ignorant of the plot but after the Pueblo attack, they used their influence to restrain North Korea and make them take less provocative actions," said Weathersby. But when Kim sent a note to Moscow asking for reassurance that the Soviet Union would indeed offer assistance should North Korea be attacked, "Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev made it clear to the North Koreans that the Soviets would not get dragged into war with the United States by North Korea—-that the alliance was strictly defensive."

To relay this message, Brezhnev summoned Kim to Moscow but with remarkable impudence Kim declined to go, sending his defense minister in his place. Nonetheless, despite their anger, "the Soviets had to publicly defend North Korea in part to rebuff what they saw as U.S. arrogance. Privately, though, the Soviets pulled the Koreans back and the situation was calmed," said Weathersby. "Although North Korea kept pushing the envelope," she observed, "it still stayed within the ‘Stalin formula.'"

By the mid-1980s, North Korea's attitude had changed regarding potential reunification and its own military and economic capacity, becoming more realistic. Despite Kim's previous manipulative maneuvers, "the evidence suggests that by the end of Kim Il Sung's reign, the North Korean leadership, presumably including Kim Jong-Il, had learned that American nuclear power rendered a military solution impossible," Weathersby wrote in her new article.

Weathersby said transcripts of recorded conversations between Kim Il Sung and East German leader Erich Honecker revealed the North Korean leader's changing attitude about unification. Given his country's economic weakness and the drain of sustained conflict on the DPRK's military and economic resources, Kim not only acknowledged that North Korea could not overpower South Korea, but also went so far as to praise Mikhail Gorbachev's initiative with Ronald Reagan to eliminate nuclear weapons.

As early as the 1960s, North Korea maintained it was hypocritical for the United States to discourage other countries from possessing nuclear weapons while it developed them, and Pyongyang began pressing its allies to give it the capacity to make its own nuclear weapons. "Today, since the U.S. attack on Iraq, it's difficult for President Bush to persuade North Korea that the United States won't attack," said Weathersby. "Bush has declared that his administration aims to end tyranny and he has called Kim Jong-Il a tyrant. Thus, North Korea is trying to persuade the United States they have nuclear weapons to deter a U.S. attack."

Weathersby said that although North Korea may possess nuclear weapons, evidence shows that in the past half-century, it has consistently operated under clearly defined constraints. "There is a record of North Korea taking advantage of its allies through lying and extortion," said Weathersby, "but I do not believe it's the case that their acquisition of nuclear weapons is for offensive purposes. Rather, it's likely defensive. Consequently, a key condition for North Korea to denuclearize is a credible assurance that it is not in danger of attack."

Resolving the critical issues surrounding North Korea, amidst a lack of diplomatic ties, could be accomplished by regional, multilateral institution building. A proponent of this approach is Ambassador James Goodby, a Wilson Center public policy scholar who played a key role in creating the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (currently called the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe—OSCE). He advocates a Northeast Asia alliance similar to the CSCE model. Korea is, as Germany was, a divided nation and Goodby maintains that the techniques the CSCE employed to break down East and West barriers—-from military transparency to confidence-building measures—-could be part of a broad-based approach in Asia to address security, economic, and humanitarian concerns.

Goodby asserts that the six-party talks among North Korea, South Korea, China, Japan, the United States, and Russia could evolve into a permanent framework for long-term cooperation. The key, he said, is to determine what critical interests could be advanced for each country through their participation in such an alliance. For example, "China wants to expand its influence," he said. "China is concerned about nuclear weapons but also sees this alliance as an entrée to big-power politics in the region."

For North Korea, it's a chance to improve its political and security relations with the world. "The six-party talks could develop into a forum that provides a sounder basis for solving problems than the narrow approach focused on the nuclear problem, and could be a springboard toward a permanent settlement." All sides would have much to gain. Goody said North Korea could receive assistance toward improving energy, transport, and humanitarian concerns in exchange for a new and binding nonaggression treaty, thereby eliminating its nuclear capability and fostering a more prosperous and secure world.

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  • Christian F. Ostermann // Director, History and Public Policy Program; Global Europe; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project
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  • Pieter Biersteker // Editorial Assistant
  • Charles Kraus // Program Assistant
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  • James Person // Deputy Director, History and Public Policy Program; Cold War International History Project; North Korea Documentation Project; Nuclear Proliferation International History Project