North Korea and the World

Book Review

North Korea and the World: Human Rights, Arms Control, and Strategies for Negotiation by Walter C. Clemens, Jr. (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2016)

Reviewed by Shepherd Iverson

Walter Clemens is an exceptionally literate Columbia-Harvard educated octogenarian scholar, who offers an experienced purview of the past leading to the present, and sound advice for how to conduct North Korea policy in the future. As one might expect from its title, whether one prefers Virgil, Machiavelli, or Goethe, the cheerful adagio and leisurely allegro of a Bach concerto or the sharp point counterpoint and complex syncopation of Beethoven, this book has something for everyone.

Did you know Koreans printed books using metal type 200 years before Gutenberg; claims one-forth of all Catholic martyrs, and that no US President spoke the word “Korea” in public from 1911 to 1942? This book contains intriguing and meaningful anecdotes and details that embellish a refreshingly sophisticated analysis. Clemens thorough scholarship also provides updated empirical estimates of things such as how many children are malnourished, citizens imprisoned, number of people who died in the famine, and other figures. This historically grounded treatise will satisfy those who seek a deeper understanding of North Korea today and the perplexing dilemmas and geopolitical challenges associated with its nuclear proliferation.

Beginning with Kim Il Sung’s interest in nuclear weapons in the mid-1950s, Clemens chronicles the phases of North Korea’s nuclear program and the impetus given it when India tested its first nuclear bomb in 1974, proving that even a poor nation can obtain a nuclear threat. This would eventually lead to nuclear cooperation with Pakistan.

Although almost 450 pages—60 pages of notes—this book is so well researched and written that it reads like a Tom Clancy novel. Separated into four sections and twenty chapters, Clemens discusses the historical roots of the North Korea problem, policy dilemmas, recent opportunities aborted, and future policy options. Interspersed throughout are thought provoking questions that could only have been asked by a scholar of significant field experience and indisputable wisdom.

Clemens asks if America should be seen as a beneficent gendarme or a brazen bully, and provides evidence for both. In his chapter, Facing Up to Evil, he quotes Reinhold Niebuhr and posits a universal moral argument that “suffering anywhere diminishes everyone,” and cites the 2006 United Nations Security Council resolution 1674 affirming the “Responsibility to Protect,” which justifies the international community’s moral obligation to intervene economically and militarily if necessary when states violate the basic human rights of their citizens.

The third section of the book is devoted to opportunities aborted as Clemens discusses failed US policy beginning with the Agreed Framework—the least bad option to create security on the cheap—followed by “Bush’s blend of bombast and malign neglect,” frustration at the cessation of six-party talks, concluding with the abandonment of the Leap Year accord and strategic patience.

One criticism of this book might also contain its deliverance: throughout there is an almost ecumenical passion reminding readers that international relations is more than abstract concepts and impersonal theories. Clemens claims “determined individuals have sometimes overcome the thrust of material forces and neutered the vagaries of time and chance.” Indeed, after introducing Machiavelli’s mysterious concept of fortuna, Clemens discusses Australian black swans, cultural intangibles, determinism, free will, and provides ample exculpatory evidence for readers to agree with his exonerating thesis that humanity may indeed overcome the push and pull of structural constraints and political dilemmas to evolve toward the light—as Steven Pinker argues in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

Clemens asks if Korea will “become a crossroads for commerce or a cauldron for war,” and argues that we have a choice, that cooperation is vital to the fitness of our species, and to thrive in an interdependent world of growing complexity we must foster enlightened self-interest to accomplish mutual gain and accommodate peace.
In his final chapter Clemens discusses the limits of rational policymaking, the possibility of parallel truths, imponderables and uncertainty, before introducing ten alternative approaches to denuclearizing North Korea. He favors strategies of engagement and negotiation, and devising “outcomes beneficial to key stakeholders” through incentives, and proposes GRIT (graduated reciprocity in tension-reduction) to achieve these results.

North Korea and the World makes an important and timely contribution to resolving one of the greatest security dangers to the United States since the Cuban missile crisis. This book is a must read for policymakers and Americans concerned about a belligerent nation with a per capita GDP of Afghanistan and a cultural propensity for honorable suicide that is developing weapons of mass destruction capable of annihilating a major American city in less than an hour from across the ocean at the push of a button.

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