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Defiant Failed State: The North Korean Threat to International Security

Defiant Failed State: The North Korean Threat to International Security by Bruce E. Bechtol Jr., Potomac Books, 2010, 288 pp.

Defiant Failed State is Bruce Bechtol’s second book on the enigmatic North Korean regime and focuses on the threat North Korea poses to the international community. Bechtol is a retired Marine, former Defense Intelligence Agency officer, and Korean specialist who continues to work on Korean security issues. In Defiant Failed State, he attempts to describe North Korea from a national security perspective, arguing that the world should be very concerned with the threat North Korea poses to the Korean peninsula, the Pacific region, the United States, and its allies.

Central to Bechtol’s argument is that North Korea should be a failed state, but it is not imploding. Instead, it continues to focus its energies and resources toward survival of the regime. It has adapted to the post–Cold War environment and continued to grow against all expectations. The author presents the North Korean threat through a diplomatic, informational, military, and economic (DIME) paradigm in relation to the containment challenges for the United States and Republic of Korea (ROK). He aims to show how the United States can counter the threat through the US-ROK military alliance.

According to Bechtol, the North Korean state and the military are one in the same. He describes how Kim Jong-Il strengthened the military domination of the regime after taking power in 1994 by increasing military influence in the National Defense Commission (NDC) and allowing ultimate policy, legal, judicial, and economic control through elevation of the NDC to a decision-making body. This partnering allows Kim to control the military through the NDC, who then use the military to control the country. Thus, Bechtol shows how North Korea’s “military first” policy comes directly from Kim Jong-Il.

Bechtol asserts North Korea will do whatever it deems necessary to promote its own national security interests. He focuses on the military capability of the artillery units, special operational forces, ballistic missile forces, and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Bechtol asserts the vast North Korean expenditure to sustain and equip its military is due to the desire to attack the ROK asymmetrically with little or no warning. Analyzing the North Korean military reorganization, the author believes North Korea is intent on attacking with a barrage of chemical munitions from artillery or ballistic missiles along with special operational forces. His analysis shows his bias in believing the North Korean military is a Goliath, failing to address its actual readiness. The author does not consider that the North Korean military may just be postured to stop external aggressors from invading and toppling the regime. Nevertheless, he paints a dire picture of what the United States and ROK could face.

There is a strong argument in Defiant Failed State linking North Korea’s illicit actions to its dire economic woes. Since the end of the Cold War, North Korea has lost sponsors, and China has become its main supporter. Bechtol argues this has led North Korea to expand into any form of revenue stream possible to enable survival: counterfeiting, drugs, or trading in missile, nuclear, and chemical technologies. Exporting of missile and WMD technologies poses a potential threat to international security. Bechtol describes proliferation linkages between North Korea and Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Libya, and the terrorist groups Hezbollah and the Tamil Tigers and shows how North Korea will sell its wares and technology to get around sanctions imposed by the international community. His main concern is missile and nuclear technology exchanges with Iran. This symbiotic relationship has enabled both states to expand their programs against the desires of the international community. Specifically, North Korea uses this exchange to fund its military and increase its capabilities as well as fuel its economy.

Bechtol addresses North Korea’s use of coercion on the international stage to achieve its national interests and describes the regime’s ability to stall and garner concessions during the nuclear negotiations of the 1994 Agreed Framework and the Six Party Talks. All the while, North Korea kept its nuclear program intact while expanding its clandestine highly enriched uranium program. He argues the Kim Jong-Il regime successfully coerced the United States and regional allies through increased missile tests, nuclear tests, and provocative military actions with the ROK to gain concessions. He is effective in showing how the North Korean government works to subvert anything that may impinge on the regime.

The book concludes with a discussion of the North Korean succession and the strength of the US-ROK alliance, expressing concern for the potential of a collapsed state after the death of Kim Jong-Il. He argues that the best way to counter the North Korean threat is to strengthen the ROK military and US-ROK alliance. It is easy to grasp Bechtol’s pleasure with the new ROK government under Lee Myung-bak taking a hard stance toward North Korea. The author stresses the United States must help the ROK rebuild under Lee and keep a firm face to the North while continuing to apply international pressure.

Defiant Failed State presents an interesting view on North Korea and shows the world it should be wary of this regime. Bechtol’s DIME analysis is an interesting format but falls short of a robust national security analysis of the North Korean regime. The work would have more impact if it expanded its sources beyond web references, press releases, and reports. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile for those who lack in-depth knowledge about the region.

Lt Col Mark Suriano, USAF

Air War College

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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