Date of Award

Winter 12-22-2021

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


George, Kallander L.

Subject Categories

Asian Studies | International and Area Studies | International Relations | Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences


This research project challenges the common belief that North Korea's pursuit of nuclear weapons and their related delivery systems in the 1990s was a fundamental shift in its foreign policy objectives toward the United States. It argues instead that North Korea has continued to pursue the rapprochement policy announced by Kim Il Sung in the early 1970s. Its findings demonstrate that the shift from rapprochement in the 1970s to provocation in the 1990s was a tactical rather than a strategic change in North Korea's foreign policy. The U.S.'s indifference to the acute security anxieties caused by exogenous factors associated with the end of the Cold War led to North Korea's adoption of an asymmetrical deterrence posture in its foreign policy toward the United States. The findings of this research project demonstrate that this fundamental dynamic, which has underpinned U.S.-North Korea relations over the last three decades, has not been analyzed systematically by the leading experts in the field of North Korea studies. Nor have its implications received the requisite attention from the policymakers of successive U.S. administrations over the last thirty years. The result is a growing conviction in the U.S. that diplomacy with North Korea is inevitably doomed to failure. This research also argues that an objective analysis of this dynamic can be parlayed into a model, or diplomatic tool kit, for constructing an effective North Korea policy. The main components of this model emerge from an empathetic investigation of North Korea's foreign policy decision-making and its pragmatic transformations in recent decades. The investigation has been guided by a predictive model of foreign policy behavior that explains foreign policy outcomes as the product of strategic decision-making by relationally- embed actors responding to situational influences in either intentional or ad hoc ways. This analytical framework for interpreting foreign policy behavior counters the instinctive human tendency to interpret an adversary's actions as blameworthy due to the enemy's 'bad nature' rather than situational concerns. This is an especially pernicious tendency in the study of North Korea since it has been the focus of pervasive 'demonization' efforts in the U.S. for over 70 years. These efforts have resulted in a counterproductive reliance among U.S. foreign policymakers on coercive diplomacy and the forced diplomatic isolation of North Korea. Isolation and coercion have obscured North Korea's pragmatic adaptations to the changing international environment of the Northeast Asian region. While North Korea's policy matrix was modified significantly when the confrontational approach began to displace the rapprochement approach in the 1990s, if the nuclear program-related developments of the early 1990s are taken out of context and made the critical starting point for analysis, the continuity in the core objectives of North Korea's foreign policy is bound to be misconstrued, if not entirely overlooked. In this study, then, two fundamental questions are posed: 1) How and under what conditions did North Korea's rapprochement behavior toward the United States emerge in the 1970s? and 2) How did this behavior gradually change from attempted accommodation in the 1970s to confrontational brinksmanship in the 1990s? Next, it investigates the causal relationships between the changes in the eco-geopolitical international environment in the early 1970s and 1990s and North Korea's foreign policy toward the United States. Based on the findings of this investigation, the conventional assumption of the purported irrationality of North Korea's regime and its foreign policy is challenged on the grounds that it has not led to a comprehensive understanding of the dynamic of North Korea's foreign policy stance toward the United States. It also has not accounted for North Korea's adjustments in its foreign policy to counter imperative changes in the international environment. To provide more plausible answers to the two questions posed above, a situational imperative model of foreign policy behavior is employed that is based on an emic approach drawing on realist and constructivist theories in an eclectic fashion. On this basis, it is clear the rationale for North Korea's initial foreign policy shift toward the United States was inspired by the Nixon Doctrine and the Shanghai Communique that codified the underlying principles of the détente between China and the United States in the early 1970s. In response to this hugely significant change in the international environment in Northeast Asia, North Korea began to make its own efforts at achieving a diplomatic accommodation with the United States by reaching out to both governmental and civil organizations in a concerted effort to achieve its foreign policy objectives. On the other hand, despite these outreach efforts, North Korea failed to get a favorable response from the authorities in Washington. Although China attempted to support North Korea's efforts by relaying its eight-point 'peace proposal' to the United States, the United States maintained its stance of indifference because it was focused squarely on maintaining a stable environment in Northeast Asia favorable to its geopolitical interests. In the early 1990s, when North Korea was challenged by South Korea's success in achieving détente with the Soviet Union/Russia and China, North Korea's policy toward the United States immediately was seized by a sense of existential crisis. As the regime's very survival was put in question, the need for achieving high level talks with the United States became compelling. Reflecting on its previous failed efforts, North Korea surmised that implementing a confrontational approach was the only effective option available. The bottom line of the confrontational approach was to obtain positive security guarantees from the U.S. which inevitably would require a normalization of relations. In this respect, it's motivation in reaching out to the United States in the 1990s was fundamentally the same as in the 1970s, but the sense of urgency had become exponentially higher due to the changed existential implications. This is the reason North Korea was prepared to risk everything by adopting a confrontational approach based on nuclear brinksmanship beginning in the early 1990s. In this way, North Korea achieved its objectives with the successful negotiation of the Agreed Framework with the United States in 1994. It eventually proved to be a pyrrhic victory when the United States peremptorily withdrew its support for the agreement only eight years later. Based on the findings of this research, however, the Agreed Framework serves as a model for a lasting resolution of the endemic conflict on the Korean peninsula and the opening of a new era in U.S.-North Korea relations. Still, even if it had survived the domestic U.S. political opposition to it, the Agreed framework would have failed to resolve the underlying sources of enmity between the United States and North Korea. Although it addressed North Korea's security anxieties on paper, no accommodation was reached in actual terms between the United States and North Korea about their respective national interests. This failure precluded any transition to the diplomatic normalization required to make a positive security guarantee a reality. Moreover, effectively, there also was a failure to reach an accommodation on the changes to the regional security architecture that were needed to ensure the long-term viability of an arrangement such the Agreed Framework. North Korea's national interests are security, regime survival, development, and international recognition of its sovereign right to self-determination. The U.S. government has its own well-known existential or ontological security needs in the Northeast Asia/Indo-Pacific region. To achieve each country's goals, diplomatic tools such as an active inter-Korean dialogue, a Pyongyang-Seoul-Washington dialogue, and the negotiation of bilateral and multilateral agreements on practical collaborative steps toward peaceful reconciliation are the initiatives needed to cut the Gordian knot that has blocked the realization of amity among all the players involved in the unfolding drama of the Korean peninsula for the past 70 years.


Open Access