By Nathan Tankus, a student and research assistant at the University of Ottawa. You can follow him on Twitter at @NathanTankus (https://twitter.com/NathanTankus)
Sometimes debates that surround a country’s policies are about whether that country’s officials are taking the correct course of action. Other times, however, when a country is perceived as a virulent enemy, the attitude forms that their actions aren’t just wrong, they are irrational and crazy (it’s telling that in a society obsessed with rationality and the “rationality” of the market, our worst insult is “irrational”). As a result, it is radical and disreputable to argue that these countries are pursing their objectives in rational manner. North Korea is one of the best examples of this dynamic the post-war period has to offer. As such, I think it’s time to offer a disreputable opinion of North Korea.
One of the little-discussed elements of war and international military infrastructure is their balance of payment implications, namely: they often require massive amounts of imports. The Korean war was no different. The difference was the existence of the Betton Woods system which required the treatment of dollars as equivalent to gold and thus the “reserve currency” of the non-Soviet world. As such, the U.S was able to expand its balance of payments deficits as needed, especially in the 1950’s when the world was starved for dollars. This did come at a cost however, that cost being the eventual destabilization and destruction of the Bretton Woods system. This would come about because, given continued balance of payment deficits, eventually other countries would question the dollar’s convertibility to gold (see Michael Hudson’s account in Superimperialism) and destroy the peg which the system was founded on.
As a result, U.S officials started becoming wary of their overseas spending. An important example comes from a September 1956 national security council meeting. In that meeting, the members (including president Eisenhower) discuss the need to reduce spending in Korea. As Governor Harold Stassen puts it, “The Free World was greatly in need of some of our gold back in 1953. It was now, however, getting too much of a claim on it and it was time to reverse directions”. Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson states in the same meeting that “there was no real way to cut U.S. expenses except by reducing the size of the armed forces of South Korea. Secretary Wilson also believed that we should try to get more of our own U.S. forces out of Korea although we should probably have to leave one U.S. division there.” The problem was, how could they reduce spending on Korea without compromising their security interest in the area? Their solution, as was often the solution in mid-twentieth century America, was nuclear weapons. By January 1958 (“at the latest”) the U.S had placed nuclear weapons in South Korea.
Note how this turns the present on its head. It has become a cliché in modern times to demonize the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for building nuclear weapons “instead” of feeding their people. In reality however, their policy appears as a rational (if dangerous) strategy to reduce military spending just as the United States did when arming South Korea and putting South Korea under its “nuclear umbrella”. Neither form of support was given the North Koreans from the Soviet Union or China. Mutually Assured Destruction only protects an area if there is a country committed to bombing back (this asymmetry is crucial to understanding North Korea’s policy agenda and mindset). This reason for their nuclear program isn’t exactly a secret, indeed it’s in the official (and yes, propagandistic) statements of their state news agency: “The DPRK’s intention to build up a nuclear deterrent force is not aimed to threaten and blackmail others but reduce conventional weapons under a long-term plan and channel manpower resources and funds into economic construction and the betterment of people’s living.”
It should go without saying (but unfortunately doesn’t) that I think the actions of North Korea’s oligarchs are in their own interests. However, that doesn’t mean their actions are the malevolent insanity they are portrayed as in the west. Nor does that mean the DPRK’s attempts to secure it’s regime are completely against the interests of their population. The U.S ended the Korean war with the threat of an atomic strike. In 1994, when the U.S nearly started a war over North Korea’s nuclear reactors, the Pentagon predicted casualties from a possible war at a minimum of one million people. Unilateral disarmament wouldn’t protect those interests much better, as Iraq so vividly illustrated a decade ago. Given all this context, does North Korea’s actions with regard to its military expenditure and focus on nuclear weapons really seem all that illogical? As I stated at the beginning of this piece, the disreputable opinion I’m presenting is not that North Korea’s actions are right or just, but simply that they are rational. It is a somewhat dark irony that our fervent belief that their actions are irrational and have no historical grounding impedes our ability to respond to them rationally.