Commentary Magazine


Contentions

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.


Join the discussion…

Are you a subscriber? Log in to comment »

Not a subscriber? Join the discussion today, subscribe to Commentary »





Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
YOU HAVE READ OF 8 FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
FOR JUST
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
YOU HAVE READ 8 OF 8
FREE ARTICLES THIS MONTH.
for full access to
CommentaryMagazine.com
INCLUDES FULL ACCESS TO:
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
CommentaryMagazine.com.
LOG IN WITH YOUR
COMMENTARY MAGAZINE ID
Don't have a CommentaryMagazine.com log in?
CREATE A COMMENTARY
LOG IN ID
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.