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North Korea Foreign Policy Essay

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Assess the impact of foreign involvement on North Korea’s foreign policy and isolation:

North Korea is, as stated by Bruce Cummings in North Korea – Another Country, “The Author of most of its own troubles”. The country is close to entirely isolated from the rest of the world maintaining only small contact with certain nations. Since the ceasefire of the Korean War, North Korea has become increasingly detached from the majority of the world; however what factors have led to this increased isolation? The heavy bombing of the North during the war, the continued existence of missiles aimed at the North, the fall of the Soviet Union, the Carter and Clinton governments steps on reconciliation with North Korea and the Bush Governments seemingly polaric policy re-opening tension with the nation, have all played a role in North Korea’s isolation but to what extent?

The Korean War was, as the Cold War of the same era, an ideological clash between the two main systems, Communism and Democracy. The North, as a communist country, was an enemy of the United States in this Ideological Clash however the Korean War was, as stated by Bruce Cummings in his 2004 novel, North Korea – Another Country, “A War fought by Koreans for Korean goals”. Bruce Cummings is the most prominent western historian to write about North Korea and several of his books are on required reading lists for subjects at the Korean University in Seoul. Cummings presents a sympathetic view to North Korea’s scenario as a “hermit kingdom” and with a large exposure to the country and despite his obvious bias towards the left, his works are extensively researched and heavily fact based. Therefore Cummings presents himself as an extremely reliable source on North Korea in general, as well as this Cummings presents works that are also useful sources in terms of analyzing an opinion on North Korea from the left wing of the political spectrum.

By the end of the Korean War, more napalm had been dropped on the North than what had been dispersed on Vietnam and with cities of greater population and industrialization in North Korea; the effects were far more devastating in comparison to Vietnam. On August the 12th, 1950, 625 tons of bombs were dropped on the North, and by late August, American fleets were dropping up to 800 tons per day. British Prime Minister during much of the conflict, Winston Churchill, was critical in the American’s heavy use of these aforementioned bombs stating “When napalm was invented in the latter stages of World War II, no one contemplated that it would be ‘splashed’ over a civilian population.”

Although North Korea was the responsible party for the outbreak of the war, America and the Soviet Union heavily influenced both the North and South’s ideologies. With estimates of North Korean deaths ranging from 1.6 to 3 million by the ceasefire of the war combined with the immense amount of bombs dropped upon the North throughout the war, one could make an assumption that the event played a large part in shaping and sustaining North Korea’s reclusive and isolated foreign policy. In North Korea – Another Country, Cummings, whilst making clear that the North were largely responsible for their own losses concludes “All Americans share a significant responsibility for the garrison state that emerged from the destruction of the North half a century ago.

The North has often stated that its primary objective after the ceasefire of the war was to re-unite with the South and since has often touted “unification” as what seems like the country’s main goal, however after the ceasefire of the war, this did not occur. Although a ceasefire had been pronounced, heavy tensions were still present. A graph published by Hans M. Kristensen of, shows that US Nuclear Weapons based in the South increased from around 250 in the late 1950’s peaking at close to 1,000 in 1963. Adding to the pre-existing tensions left behind in the shadow of a war, still not “officially” concluded, according to the excessive amounts of U.S weapons and the extensive amount of American troops both would have increased tension and in turn contributed largely to North Korea’s isolation. While the country may not have initially wanted to reunite with the South even whilst stating such, the presence of the continuous foreign troops and weapons in the South would have further detracted from the cultural and ideological clash that was emanating tension throughout the country. An article on North Korea by writes; “North Korea was diplomatically, politically, and economically far more isolated in mid-1993 than at any time since 1945. Although a member of the UN since 1991, North Korea’s relations with its two closest allies–China and the former Soviet Union– have undergone a fundamental shift unlikely to revert to previous patterns.” The collapse of communism in the Soviet Union had dramatic effects on North Korea, a country with few allies remaining in the late 20th century. North Korea’s trade with Russia became incredibly limited compared to what it once had been and where the Soviet Union often did not ask much of North Korea in return for trade, Russia now “demanded hard currency for all North Korea purchases”.
Russia also noted to the North that it was to revise the defence treaty between the two countries, which stated “will most likely mean Russia will not be obligated to militarily assist North Korea except in the event that North Korea is invaded.” The fall in relations between North Korea and Russia to the collapse of communism saw the country’s economy collapse and the population of the North entering a massive famine which according to a report from Pyongyang, killed 2.5-3 million of the North’s population, equating to 12%. With a loss of one of the countries few remaining large allies, North Korea would have been driven further into isolation after this collapse.
North Korea’s foreign policy was becoming increasingly reclusive in the late 20th century. Anders Lewis, a right-wing American historian and a heavy detractor towards much of Bill Cummings’ sympathetic work towards North Korea quoted Kim Jong Il in his essay, The Historian Who Defends North Korea as saying; “‘the imperialists’ aid is a noose of plunder and subjugation aimed at robbing ten and even a hundred things for one thing that is given”. It was clear that the North was still self-excluded and heavily isolated from much of the world; however between 1993 and 2001, the government of Bill Clinton made several important steps which improved North Korea’s foreign relations and reduced the countries increasing level of isolation.

Korea had “suffered a fractured 20th century” and the Clinton government realized this and worked towards reconciling with the fragile and tense culture which had been created in the North. Cummings observed several key points about the progress of the Clinton government’s steps on reconciliation with North Korea and states “It took the road of negotiation and accomplished several things no previous administration ever did”.

When focusing in on this progress, Cummings states three main achievements made by the Clinton administration, “it opened direct high-level talks with the North on a wide range of policy issues”. “it offered a number of concessions…one to end Team Spirit” a joint training program between America and South Korea which had been responsible for preventing many reconciliation activities in the past. In July of 1993, North Korea proposed to the US that “their entire nuclear program, based in graphite reactors, be replaced by light-water reactors”, although this never fully occurred, the Clinton administration had established successful negotiations with the North that had not been established before, making the Clinton administration’s significance towards Korean foreign relations, exponential. By the end of the term, although it would occur slowly it was becoming likely that North Korea were finally making steps away from isolation.

However these achievements were close to destroyed. The Bush government’s following administrations effect on relations paralleled and exceeded the significance of the previous governments however, the effects were entirely of negative significance. All achieved by Clinton government was quickly nullified as Bush “proceeded to poison the well calling Kim Jong Il a “pygmy” and telling a reporter that he” loathed Kim” and wished to “topple his regime”.” Adding to this, the Bush administration failed to organize any high-level conferences with North Korea until eighteen months into the term. When this conference finally occurred, Bush’ emissary, James Kelly used it to accuse the North of having established a second nuclear weapons program.

This occurred only shortly after the George Bush had architected his “axis of evil”, including North Korea in it and only weeks after the administration had created a new “doctrine of pre-emptive attack and preventatitive war”. The scope of the Bush Administration’s effects on North Korea can only be understood by looking at the events to ensue. Bruce Cummings summarizes these events in his book, Korea’s Place in the Sun, “soon they again renounced the non-proliferation treaty, kicked out UN inspectors who had been at their nuclear facility for eight years, restarted their plutonium reactor, and most ominously, regained control of the eight thousand fuel rods that had touched off the 1994 crisis”.

It is impossible to say that North Korea, although a “hermit kingdom” has by any means been purely shaped from within. The devastating results of the war, killing over a million of the North’s citizens, would see the nation heavily wounded. The remaining American missiles and troops existing in South Korea up until 1990 and the latter remaining to this day, only contribute to the North’s self-seclusion, with the presence of America still preventing the North’s idea of re-unification. The effects of the Soviet Union’s collapse and abandonment of North Korea up unto the heavy effects of the last two American presidencies’, North Korea although “The Author of most of its own troubles” has shaped it’s foreign policy and isolation as a result largely due to the events of the last 60 years.

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