United against North Korea: Is it the really the ‘West’ against the ‘Rest’?

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United against North Korea: Is it the really the ‘West’ against the ‘Rest’?

Max Lin, 1635489, Blog 2, Politics 318


The United Nations recently published its reports on the human rights abuses of North Korea. The report was led by an international panel of judges, and compared the atrocities committed by North Korea as having ‘striking similarities’ to the holocaust. Moreover, there is also the possibility of indicting Kim Jong-Un through the International Criminal Court according to Human Rights Watch. The hermit kingdom has retaliated by telling the United Nations to ‘mind its own business’ and threatened more nuclear tests.

Prima facie, North Korea is becoming increasingly isolated. Traditional allies such as China and Russia cooperated by passing a round of sanctions through the Security Council last year. The only allies of Pyongyang appeared to be rogue states such as Iran, Zimbabwe, and the fledgling opposition groups across the world. Even China in a leaked diplomatic cable conceded that it would in fact support unification under South Korea with certain conditions attached.

Video Courtesy of the Korean Society: Amnesty International’s Frank Jannuzi discusses the release of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry (COI) report of North Korean human rights violations. The report follows an extensive year-long review, including testimony by victims of the regime. 


To this end, it appears that North Korea is a basket case of classical realism, frozen in time, as the world becomes more civilised in an imperfect but ever evolving liberal order. In order to examine how true this is, we will evaluate democratic peace theory and liberal institutionalism in relation to North Korea’s recent developments. Knowledge of these theories will be assumed.

This piece wants to present and evaluate  two “paradoxes” in international relations theory, especially in relation to liberalism. They will be explained throughout the blog:

  1.       How international relations theories appear to only work in a vacuum, and require a ‘self-containing loop.’
  2.       What is the relationship and value between realism and liberalism when both are applicable?

Image Courtesy of Business Korea: Park meets Merkel last week. Park is to present on her vision and plan for Korean Unification in Dresden in what was East Germany.

Are the fundamental assumptions of liberalism true when it comes to North Korea?

The basic assumptions of liberalism are a positive view of human nature, rationality and cooperation. This purportedly leads to respect for individual rights, constitutionalism, and free-market economics. Arguably, the primary purpose of international relations theory is to model and predict behaviour of various actors in the international arena. However, this is not merely a scientific empirical enquiry, but nor is it just an a priori enquiry either. What do we mean by this? They are coloured by the choices and intents of actors at any given time.

Consider the following, let us posit that the world is liberal, and North Korea is realist. The liberal world order does not necessarily require the whole world to be liberal, but merely that liberal states (at least of the sort in accordance with Kant) would cooperate with each other and towards perpetual peace. By inference, an apologist for (neo) liberalism would argue that despite a world of anarchy, human nature or the incentives are for states to cooperate or they would not be able to share in the progress and/or wealth of the world. However, even if we accept the first premise, what if the latter is not true? What if neoliberal institutions in fact alienate certain states? The UN enquiry, WTO, and ICC merely seek to reaffirm the world view of North Korea, that it is a victim that must help herself; enshrined in its juche ideology.

Image Courtesy of the BBC: Evolution of the North Korean missile capability, the latest is capable of striking Japan

Thus, this highlights the ‘self-containing loop’ hypothesised earlier. Liberalism and realism appear simultaneously true, or at least contingent on each other. International theories do not only rely on their purported assumptions to inform our reasons for actions, those actions will re-inform those assumptions. The function: A leads to B is only accurate and useful in this case if B is then also a subset of A. The premise that nation states are and ought to cooperative is only true, if the outcome is that North Korea also cooperates. The same logic also applies to realism, North Korea’s provocations may not necessarily result in Statism and self-help, instead it has led to the opposite – more multilateral cooperation and multi-national security arrangements.

Has the world’s approach to North Korea truly been liberal? How do we reconcile this with the perception that it has been? Is it justified?

The United Nations Inquiry is a good example of liberalism. Instead of state actors balancing each other through its military for self-interest, multiple nations are cooperating through multilateral institutions and diplomacy to improve human rights in another country. Liberals could also point to the six-party talks, or even the Sunshine Policy, as examples of using diplomacy to engage with North Korea.

Image Courtesy of BBC: Entrance to the Kaesong Region, a joint industrial park between North Korea and South Korea

However, are these approaches truly liberal? The United Nations inquiry is one where it does not have any teeth, unless backed by the force of states. North Korea has responded simply by ignoring the report, and threatening nuclear retaliation. Moreover, the six party talks have achieved little. Alleged concessions by North Korea to shut down its mothballed reactors can be interpreted as realism where North Korea is merely ‘bargaining’ in exchange for much needed aid, international legitimacy, and consolidating its power base within the state. The Sunshine Policy was met with more aggression from North Korea during the same period; and it could be seen as unification in disguise for self-gain. Even the more recent Dresden Unification speech by Park Geun Hye can be construed as serving the interests of the economy of South Korea. On the final point, there is an interesting distinction between the South Korean ‘state’ and South Korean companies. There is considerable overlap, but whether we regard the former or latter as the primary actor or legitimate stakeholder will also yield different perspectives not dependent solely on actions (beyond the scope of this discussion).

A point could also be made that the collective security arrangement (liberalism) is merely a symptom of realism. The US is merely balancing against China in Asia, and South Korea would pursue nuclear weapons if it were not for the US acting as the guarantor of its state’s security. It appears there that there is a duality of space where both theories are ‘true’.

Image Courtesy of BBC: Joint US-South Korea drills in 2014


This piece highlights three key issues: firstly, that the cause and effect (vis-à-vis assumptions and choice) of international relations theories are not linearly causative nor distinct but interdependent; secondly, that realism and liberalism cannot be considered as ‘best fit’ models independently, they can fit depending on the circumstance and state; and finally, that both theories can even simultaneously hold true given the right conditions (or perspectives), they are not mutually exclusive. Given more scope it would have been good to discuss the moral force of rule-based systems in liberalism and collective action problems.

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