Carrying a Big Stick

Eugene Y. Park, Korea Foundation Associate Professor of History, puts a lens to North Korea.
April 2, 2013

When asked to name the underlying reasons for the increased aggression of North Korea’s foreign policy, Korea Foundation Associate Professor of History Eugene Y. Park sums it up in a single word: fear.

“There is more tension in North Korea now because the current regime is feeling more isolated and is doing whatever it thinks is necessary to ensure its survival,” Park says.

Director of the James Joo-Jin Kim Program in Korean Studies, Park places current nuclear threats by North Korea into historical context: “Whatever North Korea has been doing since the 1953 ceasefire [ending the Korean War], its aim is to preserve its grip on its people and ultimately the survival of a totalitarian regime,” he says, cautioning, “Korea observers always quip, ‘Who really knows anything about North Korea?’ because it’s such a closed and secretive society.”

Professor Park explains that the regime of the country’s current leader, Kim Jong-un, has proven less stable than that of his father and predecessor, Kim Jong-il, who led North Korea from 1994 until his death last year. Whereas Kim Jong-il had decades of preparation for his role as leader—eventually becoming a semi-deified “Supreme Leader” in 2009—Kim Jong-un came to power as something of a novice in a totalitarian state maintained by a dynastic system.

“Unlike his father, Kim Jong-un was not groomed for succession for a long time. In fact, the announcement of him as the heir apparent was rather sudden. Kim Jong-un has yet to assume his father’s highest title as the supreme leader, ‘Chairman of the National Defense Commission.’”

Park noted that the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 were devastating for North Korea’s economy because the volume of cheap oil and other natural resources to North Korea decreased drastically, and the change exacerbated the collapse of the North Korean economy. In addition, since the Korean War the country has been thrown off balance by the fall-out between the Soviet Union and China, as well as warming Sino-U.S. relations. “The less certain the regime feels about its place in the world, the more 'saber rattling' it does," says Park.

“North Korea’s increasing belligerence has been a huge dilemma for China,” he says. “In the past, China has done whatever it could to help North Korea’s regime survive, but now China is growing increasingly irritated and frustrated” with its ally. Park explains that ideally, both China and the United States would like to see economic reform in North Korea and the adoption of a market economy, as China has done since the 1980s.

On leave this semester to finish a book project on the history of his paternal grandfather’s family that has implications on class, nationalism, and modernity for Korea from 1590 to 1945, Professor Park says, “All-out war is almost impossible because the stakes are too high for all the principals involved: the United States, China, Japan, and Russia. The only factor that could trigger an all-out war on the Korean peninsula is North Korea acting out of desperation.”