CWIHP Senior Associate Presents Paper on Evolution of North Korean Thinking Toward Use of Military Force Against South Korea

Dec 21, 2004

Kathryn Weathersby, Senior Associate of the History and Public Policy Project and Coordinator of CWIHP's Korea Initiative, presented a paper "The Enigma of the North Korean Regime: Back to the Future?" at the conference "The US-Korean Alliance and the Future of Northeast Asia," held December 6-7 at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies, in Washington, DC. The conference was co-sponsored by the Ilmin International Relations Institute of Korea University, with support from Institute 21 for Peace Studies, the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper in Seoul, and the Korea Foundation.

Dr. Weathersby's paper traces the evolution of North Korea's approach to using military force against South Korea—the issue at the center of the US/ROK alliance. The paper is based on documents CWIHP's Korea Initiative, with support from the Korea Foundation, has uncovered from the archives of the DPRK's former communist allies. Dr. Weathersby argues that DPRK actions followed a logic that is comprehensible once sufficient information about them is known. It is no longer necessary, therefore to regard North Korea as an enigma. Kim Il Sung's logic in the first decades was that "liberation" of the South remained an unquestioned goal and in fact a duty. While he and his communist allies regarded the use of military force as proper to achieve such an important end, the decision to employ this strategy could not be made by the DPRK alone. Since North Korea was dependent on its allies for economic survival, and since military action against the ROK risked general war between the Soviet and American camps, only the Soviet Union (and in the 1950's China) could make the final decision to undertake such dangerous action. As long as American forces remained in South Korea, and the US remained committed to the defense of the ROK, the Soviet Union would not consider a repeat invasion of the South.

The Kim Il Sung regime was thereby restrained from attempting another conventional assault on South Korea, even though through the 1960's it appears to have maintained an unrealistic optimism about its ability to prevail in such a contest. The Soviet constraint, however, did have a loophole—Kim was allowed to defend the DPRK against an American attack. Therefore, particularly when the North Korean leader was attempting to enhance his revolutionary stature during the Chinese Cultural Revolution of the late 1960's, he tried to manufacture such an attack, or at least persuade his allies that one was imminent and that a revolutionary situation existed in South Korea. The DPRK consequently attempted to assassinate ROK President Park Chung Hee in January 1968, in hopes of sparking a military coup that would call on the North for protection. When the commando raid failed, Kim quickly seized the USS Pueblo to deflect attention to the alleged aggression of the Americans.

By the 1980's, if not earlier, Kim Il Sung had come to appreciate the deterrent effect of the American nuclear weapons deployed in South Korea. He also recognized that the DPRK's economic system was not going to prevail over the capitalist system of the South. For these reasons, even though Soviet leverage over the DPRK waned in the late ‘80's as a result of Gorbachev's reforms, Kim ceased to speak of using military means to unify Korea, or even of unification at all. Instead, his goal was to ease tensions on the peninsula, and his method was to rely on Gorbachev's dramatic negotiations with Ronald Reagan over bilateral nuclear disarmament.