No country in recent history has been as notoriously branded as North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK), which has been portrayed as a failed rogue state and a member of an axis of evil playing a dangerous game of proliferating weapons of mass destruction (WMD), violating basic human rights, and starving its own people while pursuing a megalomaniac goal of a strong and prosperous nation (kangsung daeguk). North Korea has also even been called an amoral state that not only engages in habitual cheating and blackmail, but also defies international norms and ethics by committing illegal acts such as exporting drugs and counterfeiting currencies. On the basis of this characterization, North Korea does not deserve sympathy or support from the international community, and its early demise through isolation and containment will be a blessing for peninsular, regional, and global peace and stability.
This paper argues that the monolithic and linear interpretations and prescriptions of the North Korean quagmire are misleading and even dangerous. I make this argument not because I believe in an idealistic constructivist view that emphasizes the self-determination of nation-states, the cultural context of national identity, and its intersubjective understanding (Cumings 2004, Bleiker forthcoming), but because a sudden collapse of North Korea and the subsequent negative spillover can bring a collateral catastrophe to South Korea and the Northeast Asian region. Widespread political unrest, an increasing potential for conflict escalation, economic devastation, social instability, and immense human suffering—all of which are likely to be immediate outcomes of a sudden collapse—can jeopardize peace and prosperity on the Korean peninsula and in the Northeast Asian region. Thus, preventing a sudden collapse and avoiding collateral catastrophe seem to be the critical tasks that lie ahead. It is in this context that North Korea deserves international economic support.
To be sure, Pyongyang should be reminded that there is no free lunch. International economic support should be firmly tied to North Korea’s corresponding cooperative behavior. Preconditions should include the proactive resolution of security concerns, including the North’s nuclear weapons program, extensive structural and institutional realignments for economic opening and reform, political liberalization and improvement of human rights, and accumulation of credible external behavior. This paper aims at addressing these issues within the broad context of systemic changes in North Korea.