Feeding North Korea: An analysis of the hermit kingdom’s gunboat diplomacy

On 23 January 1968, an intelligence ship from the United States, the USS Pueblo, was targeted by a North Korean (DPRK) sub-charger as it sailed in international waters. A few hours later, President Lyndon Johnson woke to the news that the US Navy ship and its eighty three crewmen had been captured. Today, the USS Pueblo is docked in Pyongyang harbour and is used by the government as a tool for the indoctrination of its citizens and as a tourist attraction for visitors. Many years have passed since the Pueblo Incident, but there is no doubt that it acts as a reminder of DPRK aggression. It also serves to demonstrate the development of DPRK foreign policy throughout the last fifty years, emerging from its expansive, volatile use of force during the 1950s and 1960s, to its largely symbolic nature used to acquire food donations from other states and institutions during times of domestic hardship, through a policy of gunboat diplomacy.

Image Courtesy of Nicor © 2012, some rights reserved.

Image Courtesy of Nicor © 2012, some rights reserved.

It is first important to define the term gunboat diplomacy and James Cable argues it is ‘Gunboat diplomacy is the use or threat of limited naval force … in order to secure advantage, or to avert loss, either in the furtherance of an international dispute or against foreign nationals within the territory or the jurisdiction of their own state’.[1] Whilst being a useful definition, it is crucial to stress that the show of force is also intended to remedy domestic issues, most notably food shortages, as well as shaping political decisions in foreign states and international institutions.

The DPRK is able to conduct gunboat diplomacy through its possession of nuclear weapons or, if you insist on Bushisms, “Weapons of Mass Destruction”. Whilst it is extremely difficult to know the exact strength or number of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons, the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies puts the number at between ten and sixteen.[2] It should also be noted that the idea of the DPRK’s leadership being moronic, irrational clowns is quite simply false. On the contrary, the leadership must operate with a certain degree of rationality considering it has not yet used a nuclear weapon against another state. The leadership instead uses the threat of nuclear force for domestic gain and this is especially evident during periods of famine.

Famine is a term synonymous with the DPRK’s recent history. For the duration of the 1990s, famine ravaged the DPRK and it is estimated that around 330,000 people died as a result of famine between 1993 and 2000.[3] Death and deprivation have led to the formation of a truly unique style of foreign policy by the DPRK, insofar as periods of famine and food shortage are more than likely accompanied by aggressive missile launches and, more recently, intense nuclear demonstrations. Indeed, the beginning of the recent famine in 1993 coincided with the Nodong Missile Test. Furthermore, as North Korea entered the 21st Century still in a time of famine, many missile tests have occurred, such as the test of Taepodong 2 in 2009 and various missile launches in the Sea of Japan up to the present day. The purpose of this tactic is, of course, to intimidate the great powers to the point that they supply emergency food aid; China increased its food donation by 100,000 metric tonnes between 2008 and 2009.[4] As part of the “juche” ideology, which ironically champions the virtues of self-reliance, the military plays a major state role, and it is argued by Georgetown Professor Victor Cha that state hierarchy is strongly based on militarisation. The military is therefore important when we consider emergency food aid, as recent research suggests that around 30 per cent of this aid flows directly to the military and this surely raises questions regarding our duty to supply the DPRK with food.

The states and institutions granting the DPRK with emergency food aid clearly subscribe to a more cosmopolitan approach than a purely realist one, that is to say we feel a duty to help our fellow human beings as opposed to allowing the DPRK to fall in on itself by doing nothing to help. Whilst important, the concern of states and institutions is naturally entwined with the DPRK’s aggressive foreign policy. States and institutions cannot risk sabotaging peace on the Korean Peninsula by refusing aid, as we do not know for sure the capability of the DPRK’s weaponry. This is illustrated by the fact that the basketball player, Dennis Rodman, arguably knows more about the leadership of the DPRK than any government department as a result of his close friendship with leader Kim Jong-un.

Although I do not particularly support the scientific approach to international relations, I opine that the DPRK’s foreign policy is largely cyclical and, to a certain extent, predictable. When facing periods of economic hardship and food shortages, the DPRK will continue to conduct gunboat diplomacy in order to seek concessions and food donations. The pattern could continue indefinitely as DPRK capabilities are still not fully known. So, when and how will this style of foreign policy come to an end? This will only occur if states and institutions become confident that the DPRK’s aggression has no substance and the threat of large-scale military confrontation is low enough to warrant depriving the DPRK of international assistance. We must remember, however, that cosmopolitan theories, as are used by those donating food, dictate that we have a duty to assist fellow humans, thus the distinction between depriving the DPRK of assistance in order to create a more permanent peace on the Korean Peninsula, and inadvertently starving civilians living within the state is blurred and difficult to navigate. Some, of course, would view the deaths of civilians as collateral damage and a necessary step in toppling a regime which has carried out human rights abuses throughout its short history, with President George W Bush arguing that the DPRK constituted an ‘axil of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world’. Yet, from a Western perspective, the recent 70th Anniversary of the Workers’ Party Parade and the reluctance of any regime to properly challenge the DPRK point to the fact that the DPRK will continue its distinct use of gunboat diplomacy for many years to come.

The foreign policy of the DPRK is an extremely interesting subject which deserves thorough attention by academics and governments alike. It is my hope that states and institutions will continue to assess the capabilities of DPRK hostility in order to develop an action plan for the cultivation of long lasting peace on the Korean Peninsula and for the wider world.

[1] James Cable, Gunboat Diplomacy: Political Applications of Limited Naval Force (Praeger: New York, 1971),           p. 21

[2] http://thediplomat.com/2015/09/how-many-nukes-does-north-korea-have/

[3] Daniel Goodkind, Loraine West, Peter Johnson, ‘A Reassessment of Mortality in North Korea, 1993-2008’ U.S. Census Bureau, Population Division (28th March, 2011).

[4] Victor Cha, The Impossible State (Vintage: London, 2013), p. 447