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Crisis on the Korean Peninsula

Crisis on the Korean Peninsula by Christoph Bluth. Potomac Books, 2011, 272 pp.

Christoph Bluth, a professor of international studies at the University of Leeds and a founding member of the Korean Research Hub, seeks to explain the North Korean security crises from both a historical and geopolitical perspective. He has spent time in Seoul at Yonsei University as a visiting professor and as a scholar with the Korean Institute of Defense Analysis. Bluth provides a balanced narrative of the ongoing crisis between North Korea and its neighbors suitable for both academic and general audiences. Unfortunately, his book adds little to current scholarship and demonstrates the difficulty most authors experience while analyzing North Korea.

Bluth begins by noting the need for a “realistic threat assessment” of North Korea based on both the East Asia security dilemma and the Kim regime’s intentions (p. 5). Most Korean analysts would argue that threat assessments are readily available (from both government and think-tank sources), but that a lack of consensus exists on the motivations of the Kim regime and how the international community should respond to its provocative actions.[JG1] Bluth discusses various international relations theories and suggests that structural realism might be the best fit for North Korea (p. 13). Yet, there is no linkage between this initial discussion of theoretical explanations for North Korean behavior and the rest of the book. His introduction also omits a clearly stated intent for the text and does not address his conclusion that Korean unification should be a priority for US foreign policy.

The author discusses North Korea’s military capabilities and South Korea’s perception of the North’s threat. He provides an adequate background to the overall security situation but excludes the asymmetric and potentially devastating capabilities of North Korea’s special operations troops (numbering well over 150,000). The chapters on North and South Korean economic, political, and military development provide useful background material, citing new evidence from Soviet archives, and succinctly trace the development of both nations. His description of the leadership transition planning between Kim Jong-Il and his son Kim Jong-Un is especially useful, as the younger Kim has now assumed control. The section on South Korea’s transition from authoritarian to democratic state is also important. Bluth’s explanation of North Korea’s naval and artillery attacks against the South in 2010 and limited response from the South indicates the delicate security situation on the peninsula. South Korea’s reluctance to risk war over direct (albeit isolated) attacks by North Korea remains an enduring aspect of the South’s foreign policy.

The second half of the text focuses on North Korea’s efforts to develop and weaponize nuclear technology. The Kim regime began its quest in the 1960s, and by the late 1980s, Pyongyang had established plants capable of processing plutonium for use in nuclear weapons. The early 1990s saw the removal of US nuclear weapons from the peninsula and agreements between North and South Korea to conform to International Atomic Energy Agency requirements. This was followed by a series of negotiations and plans for the delivery of energy aid (light-water nuclear reactors and heavy fuel oil) to North Korea under the 1994 Agreed Framework. Bluth identifies recurring themes in negotiations with North Korea, to include reluctance by the United States to provide concessions until actions are taken by North Korea (p. 122) and the North’s willingness to risk war to achieve policy objectives (p. 136).

Security implications for the United States and China focus on the nuclear issue and the George W. Bush administration’s designation of North Korea as part of the “axis of evil.” Yet, Bluth’s conclusions are not new, and his statements such as “the North Korean state is not viable politically, socially, or economically” (p. 176) do not help explain why North Korea remains intact. Identifying North Korea as a poorly governed state is a simple task—analyses that are more useful attempt to explain why the North endures despite its domestic conditions.

The chapter on China (co-written with Chunyao Yi, a fellow researcher and China expert at Leeds) considers North Korea from the viewpoint of its most powerful ally. This is the most coherent section of the text, providing an in-depth analysis of China’s efforts on the nuclear issue during the Six-Party Talks and demonstrating the crucial role Beijing has undertaken within the region. While the discussion on China is important, the roles of the other two regional powers (Russia and Japan) are ignored, resulting in an incomplete analysis of the overall security within East Asia.

Bluth’s conclusion is also disappointing. He states there is “no solution to the North Korean problem” (p. 207) but does provide policy suggestions. He proposes that diplomacy with North Korea should focus on preventing war on the Korean peninsula, stopping proliferation of nuclear and weapons technology, and promoting reunification (pp. 208–9). These are important policy goals, but the first two are already being pursued by South Korea and its allies. His final and most important recommendation, for the United States and the international community to support reunification, needs much more explanation. Many Korean scholars argue that reunification is dependent upon North Korea’s actions and will result from either war or internal collapse. North Korea has a history of “muddling through” domestic and international crises, which currently makes either of these scenarios unlikely. Bluth’s reunification argument requires more detail, as this is a risky proposition for the international community—a reunified Korea would result in economic, political, and security implications for the region and the world.

This book demonstrates the relative ease of describing the security situation in East Asia and the difficulty in finding solutions to the complex problems North Korea creates. Bluth’s description of the evolution of the nuclear crisis does provide a useful basis for understanding that component of North Korea’s international relations. Unfortunately, the rest of the text adds little to our understanding.

LTC Robert Daniel Wallace, USA

US Army Command and General Staff 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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