Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


North Korea: a need for reappraisal

By Gregory HendersonGregory Henderson, a Korea Specialist who spent 16 years in the US Foreign Service, is the author of numerous books and articles on Korea. / March 19, 1980



With the Shah's fall and Marshal Tito's incapacitation, President Kim II Sung of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) becomes the world's most enduring political leader. Without break, Kim has led a state comparable to Yugoslavia in population, industry, education, and military and strategic importance since the DPRK's September, 1948, birth and as dominant native leader for three years before that.

Skip to next paragraph

Kim II Sung's advent to world political gold medalhood raises for American policy the nagging question of dealing with the world as it is instead of as we wish that it were. The United States has never had relations with the DPRK nor have any americans ever come to know Kim. In no sense Talleyrand would recognize have we a realistic grasp of North Korea.

Strangely, our bonds are close. The United States was the unwitting creator of North Korea, as of few other nations besides the Philippines, America itself, and South Korea. Unilaterally, we proposed the August, 1945, division of Korea knowing that any "temporary" division with the Soviets was like a little pregnancy. We are the first parent of each separate Korean state. Neither this man to whom we do not speak nor his country would be as they are without us.

With whom in our 200 years have we kept unbroken hostility for 34 years except Kim and North Korea? Not with George III's England, the Kaiser's or Hitler's Germany, not Ho Chi Minh's Vietminh, not Stalin or Castro. And whom does this gold-medal enmity profit? Not us, surely, nor Pyongyang. South Koreans ever it benefits them, but that case is dubious.

The sole benficiary is Moscow. Pyongyang has, in fact, steadily weaned itself from Soviet influence; mutual Korean-Soviet love has long faded. Yugoslavia's truculent independence may elude her, but no nation can rival North Korea in the fervency of its independent intent or in the sacrifices this intent has entailed. Closer relations with the US would be an almost certain path toward complicating the problem of Soviet hegemony in North Korea, hence countering the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with greater long-run effect than a boycott of the Olympic Games let alone export embargoes; the more so since Pyongyang seeks contact with us.

Tired, generation-long arguments recur, of course: the military threat of North Korea's powerful armed forces; the intent supposedly unmasked in the tunnels discovered from north to south; aggressive statements; 1950's surprise attack; forays and probings since. No one can guarantee Pyongyang's innocence or impotence. Yet what cause does lack of contact serve: to exorcise threat or to exacerbate it? Is there a better path toward suspicion and felt threat than over 30 years of blocked communication?

Now the Winter Olympics. North Korean officials have discovered even in Lake Placid's simple, naive contacts -- which we would abolish in Moscow -- that ordinary Americans do not harbor toward them the hatred North Koreans thought they harbored; only ignorance. They feel encouraged to push toward better relations. Shall we tell them: "No, let's keep on hating each other"?

The problem is, then, South Korea. Here intent must be loud and clear: No reservations about Seoul can possibly justify betraying our alliance with the South; no fingertip of American interest exists for so doing. Moreover, no defense and security discussions with Pyongyang can have meaning where Seoul is excluded. Exactly the same is true of West Germany -- which does not impede American trade, exchange programs and relations with East Germany.

A chief objective of our relations -- informal, surely, for some time -- with Pyongyang should be to help, not hinder, bilateral relations between the two Koreas. Washington-Pyongyang contacts can support these ends. Seoul can be so assured. Some trade, however small, should be started; scholarly exchanges through our International Research and Exchange Broard (IREX) should be initiated. Official soundings to such ends -- but avoiding now military matters -- should begin.

Will Pyongyang accept relations delimited so as not to undercut our South Korea allies? I cannot, of course, be sure; but I am inclined to think it now will. For us, such relations would be a long step toward dealing with the world's realities, reducing tensions -- and complicating life for the Soviet Union in the process.