Commentary Magazine


The One Book to Read on Korea

While writing my book chapter on the history of U.S. diplomacy with North Korea and while preparing for a trip to South Korea to conduct interviews a couple years back, I had to get smart on Korea quickly, and hit the books. There is no shortage of books out there: Don Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas; Narushige Michishita’s North Korea’s Military-Diplomatic Campaigns; Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci’s Going Critical; Leon Sigal’s Disarming Strangers, and Bradley Martin’s Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, among others. One stood out, however: Chuck Downs’ Over the Line. Downs, a former Pentagon official, traces North Korean negotiating behavior from the Armistice through the 1990s. He emphasizes the importance of negotiating strategy:

How this small, relatively powerless nation uses negotiation to advance domestic oppression and foreign intimidation deserves careful scrutiny. Although North Korea brings very little to the negotiating table, it has consistently won benefits that strengthen the regime’s political control and improve its military capabilities… Were it not for the regime’s careful and clever management of the process of negotiation, few people outside the Korean peninsula would have had any real reason to concern themselves with North Korea.  The negotiating process, and North Korea’s manipulation of it, is what makes North Korea matter at all.

During the George H.W. Bush administration, Kim Il Sung, for example, played both Secretary of State James Baker and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft for fools. North Korean officials would first reveal information to generate concern, and then the regime would suddenly cut access, watching as Western desperation grew, ending ultimately in concession. Making mincemeat out of Jimmy Carter, former Clinton-era ambassador (and Emory University president) James Laney, Bill Richardson, and Chris Hill was even easier.

Downs, who has also served as executive director of Committee for Human Rights in North Korea, highlights the importance of Korean culture, and explains how the North Koreans would often seek to score cultural points and humiliate American diplomats—with everything from rhetoric to seat height—with some American officials being none the wiser.

I read a lot and can often be cynical about books—especially nowadays when so many authors seek to promote their own narrative and worry more about legacy than truth. Over the Line stood out, however. It is far, and is the best example I have ever seen of an author explaining the nuances and importance of culture. When I have taught Iran, Afghanistan, or the other subjects in which I normally involve myself, this still goes on the reading list. And with the current crisis in Korea, it remains the best resource, be it for a policy maker, outside observer, or diplomat.