I spent a week in North Korea in the 1990s and went away from my interviews with government leaders with the sense that they were in a profound grip of paranoia. From one office to the next I was shown pictures of how the city of Pyongyang was destroyed during “America’s War of Aggression,” which was their name for what we call the Korean War. In their collective memory it was the US who started it with the sole purpose of obliterating their country, a goal that they think we still harbor.
Considering their distrust of Americans it was a bit of surprise when I was invited to go there along with several of my colleagues at the University of Hawaii where I was serving as dean of the University’s School of Hawaiian, Asian and Pacific Studies at the time. The idea was for our team to negotiate the possibility of scholarly exchanges and mutual academic projects with Kim Il Sung University and the leading research center in the country, the Institute for Juche Thought (juche is the term for the ideas of Kim Il Sun that are treated as if they were a blueprint for all of humanity).
So although at least some of the government officials with whom we spoke had a goal of joint academic ventures, it also became clear that not all of them were enthusiastic about the idea. As their hostile comments to us implied, the United States was a belligerent, evil power with only one goal in mind: the destruction of North Korea.
It is this paranoia that continues to be the dominant point of view in Pyongyang. If anything the attitude has gotten even worse under the present leader, Kim Jung Un. Behind the killing of his uncle and his half-brother was an ideological difference between those like Kim who persist in a kind of siege mentality and those who would prefer to open up their society’s doors to the wider world.
When we were in Pyongyang, we saw plenty of examples of how students in North Korean universities were preparing themselves for the global arena. English was a surprisingly popular foreign language, even more than Chinese or Russian. Computer literacy was required, and although the access to personal computers was limited, the computers in the college classrooms were in heavy demand. When we visited classrooms in the universities our presence was consistently warmly greeted.
The issue, then, is how the West—especially the United States, which looms so large in the North Korean imagination—can respond to North Korea’s actions in a way that will encourage the progressive, globally-minded elements within the country and undermine the paranoia of those leaders who rule as if a new Korean War was just around the corner.
Clearly the way not to respond is to stoke their paranoid fears. When US President George W. Bush listed North Korea among the three evil enemies in the “axis of evil” mentioned in his 2002 State of the Union speech, North Korean leaders were terrified. It was as if their worst fears were coming to life. The yearly joint military exercises between the US and South Korea off the shores of North Korea are also annual reminders of the enormous military might that is poised against them.
It is understandable, then, that North Korean leaders have responded defensively. They have convinced themselves that the only thing that can prevent the nuclear annihilation of North Korea is deterrence. By creating their own nuclear weapons capacity, they think, they will forestall an American invasion.
The paradox of this position is that the development of North Korean nuclear weapons capability is precisely what frightens political leaders in the United States. Responding in kind, with increased sanctions and threats of military intervention, is likely to increase the paranoia of North Koreans and lead to even more frantic attempts to shore up their deterrent nuclear weapons capability.
What to do? It turns out that North Korean leaders are hungry for any sign of respect from the West. Witness the pathetic fawning over the aging former basketball star, Dennis Rodman, by Kim Jung Un. Or the incident during the regime of the present leader’s father, Kim Jung Il, when in 2009 he demanded that former President Bill Clinton come to Pyongyang personally for an audience with Kim Jung Il before he would release two American journalists who had been taken hostage. Clinton made the journey, and it turned out that what Kim Jung Il wanted most of all was a formal picture of him standing next to the former U.S. President in the ornate meeting room of a Pyongyang governmental palace, proving that Clinton had come to his quarters.
So as distasteful as the idea might seem to those who think that taking a “hard line” against North Korea is the most effective tactic, in fact it might be the worst option available. It might hasten the mounting spiral of paranoia and trigger the possibility of devastating preemptive strikes, possibly with nuclear warheads that could obliterate whole cities, including Seoul and Tokyo. What might begin to de-escalate the crisis would be a surprising openness of America to meetings and conversation, perhaps returning to the idea of US support for peaceful nuclear energy projects, as has been negotiated in the past.
Such a strategy of openness would probably not transform North Korea overnight. But it would be a welcome change from the freight trains of war that we hear rumbling these days on both sides. What is at stake is not only the future of US relations with North Korea, but the assurance of peace in a nuclear-charged world.