John Feffer (Co-Director of Foreign Policy in Focus, Institute for Policy Studies)

03.01.2011 - Interview conducted by Katie Dickmeyer


Q1. The topic of your speech was "The Last Cold War Battle: North Korea and the Challenge of Soft Power." Is soft power up to the challenge in the Korean Peninsula?

Well, it depends on who is wielding it I suppose - right now on the Korean Peninsula, there really isn’t any other option. The hard power option was already tried from 1950-1953 and intermittently since then, most recently with the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island by the North Koreans and the retaliatory shelling of North Korea by South Korea, with little effect. The Korean War itself was fought to a stalemate as well. Both sides understand that hard power options are not effective, but the question is what kind of soft power strategies are available and who is willing to undertake them. China has been very active in pushing for diplomatic solutions. It has its own ideas of what kind of soft power methods are effective, such as more economic trade and economic investment in North Korea. South Korea tried 10 years of soft power under Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun, with intermittent success. The US has waxed hot and cold on the issue of soft power and has generally been pushed towards the issue rather than whole-heartedly embracing it. The Clinton administration came within a hair’s breadth of attacking North Korea in 1994 during the first nuclear crisis, but was basically pushed into an agreed framework through the intercession of Jimmy Carter. The Bush administration was also not enthusiastic about engaging North Korea but was pushed into it for a number of reasons- the failure of its isolationist tactics, the mid-term elections of 2006, and the repudiation of Republican foreign policy. What will the Obama administration do? One hopes that he will embrace soft power strategies rather than being coerced into using them.

Q2. How would you score the effect of those hard power mechanisms in use with regard to North Korea, in particular the economic sanctions? What other options are there which might be considered game-changers?
Economic sanctions have been placed against North Korea essentially since the Korean War. Have they been effective? It depends on how you measure success. They have not been effective in changing North Korean policy or behavior and certainly have not been effective in changing the North Korean regime. I would argue that these economic sanctions up to this point have been a palliative method. One might even call them a placebo, a substitute for a genuinely effective policy.

A game-changer would be if the United States decided tomorrow to establish diplomatic relations with North Korea. A lot of people would argue that this standpoint could not be endorsed, as they would see diplomatic recognition of North Korea as almost a reward for its behavior. From history, we can see that diplomatic behavior often precedes behavioral changes. We embarked on the path of recognition with China in 1972 before it changed its behavior- the Cultural Revolution was ongoing, Mao Zedong was still in power, and there was a terrible human rights situation. However, the United States decided to change the game and this would perhaps be an effective move in North Korea.
Q3. The role of China is crucial for the question of North Korea. Do you see any hint of an evolving stance by the Chinese for North Korea? Can any real change occur without a tougher stance from China?
Everyone talks about a tougher stance from China towards North Korea. China has its own national interests in the same way the United States does, and its priority is to guard against anything that will compromise its economic growth. Anything that interferes with economic growth- i.e. the collapse of a country on its border, major instability, an influx of migrants, or war- is not something that China would want to precipitate. A hard-line position will only be pursued by China if it feels that this is in its national interest. I do not see this happening in the near future.
Q4. Aside from the unlikely prospect of invasion, the North Korean regime will likely need to collapse from within. In such a repressive and ideology-driven environment, what are the prospects for such a scenario?  
We’ve been expecting North Korea to collapse since approximately 1989. We thought that the great regime collapse would spread eastwards from Eastern Europe, to the Soviet Union, to Mongolia, and then to China. There were no regime changes in Asia apart from Mongolia. Tiananmen Square happened on June 4th, 1989 and it was crushed by the government. There have not been any significant transformations since then and North Korea has not collapsed. There have been many reasons to expect it to collapse such as a major food crisis, transition in leadership, or the death of the only leader it had ever had in its entire history. If it can survive shocks like that, then I do not think that we can expect North Korea to collapse or even build a policy based on that premise. If the regime were to collapse, the most likely institutional power that would take over, assuming that South Korea would not try to intervene, would be the military as it is the only functioning institution in North Korean society. It is conceivable that we would see in this case a military junta being established along Burmese lines. As there is no civil society to speak of in North Korea, we are not likely to see anything rivaling the military in terms of institutional legitimacy emerging in the near future.

Thank you very much for your time.