top of page

The North Korean Question – Part 2: A cultural conflict

Image credit: mister addd (Flickr: Creative Commons)

This article is part of a two-part series examining peace and security on the Korean Peninsula.

In part one of this two part series, it was acknowledged that the assumption of a hawkish, pro-conflict stance on the North Korean issue would result in utter ruination. However, it was also observed that the present framework of sanctions against the North has proven powerless.

In devising a solution, wisdom can be drawn from the teachings of Sun Tzu’s Art of War, where it is observed that “In the practical art of war, the best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good.” The question must therefore be asked – can North Korea be successfully disarmed without the international community utilizing military force?

Policy misconceptions

The North Korean state is one that is skeptical, bitter, and paranoid in nature. This may be attributed to the numerous sanctions imposed on it by the international community for its nuclear and missile programs. Consequently, the government perceives itself as facing an existential threat from all sides, having observed the fate of countries opposed to western interests whom voluntarily denuclearized. Although Iraq and Libya succumbed to Western pressure to denuclearize, both Saddam Hussein and Muammar el-Qaddafi were subsequently ousted and their nations regressed into failed states. The Kim regime’s quest for nuclear weaponry is the logical outcome of justified paranoia, one that has been central to its legitimacy and inextricably tied to its very survival in an increasingly polarised global climate.

The ineffectual response of the international community to North Korea has been illustrated by the disjointed reactions of assorted stakeholders in the West (US, South Korea, Japan) and the East (China, Russia). When treating states as their own individual personality, the circumstances and interactions here can be interpreted as characteristic of intermittent reinforcement, where the rules, rewards or personal boundaries are handed out or enforced inconsistently and occasionally. This encourages the opposing party to continue pushing until they get what they want, without altering their own behaviour.

The democratic nature of the US government and transition of executive leadership every four or eight years contributes to this unstable circumstance – thereby fostering a degree of uncertainty within policy between each successive administration, which paradoxically amounts to a certain predictability that the North Korean regime can exploit. The current course is unsustainable, since the North will never surrender its nuclear capabilities so long as external threats by foreign powers enforce the perception that such weaponry is central to the regime’s survival. The sooner this is understood, the better.

One avenue that has been largely neglected has been the adoption of a liberalist outlook; to facilitate constructive dialogue on shared concerns, and the greater promotion of interdependence through the exchange of cultural materials and concepts. The objective here must be to promote understanding by altering the North’s enduring perceptions of Western actions from one of hostility to one of concern, followed by the extended secondary objective of reconciliation and eventual reunification; thus advancing and securing long-term peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.

The Power of Soft-Power

First articulated by Joseph Nye, the notion of soft-power involves the ability of a state to achieve its goals through attraction rather than by coercion or conflict. In the age of digital diplomacy, the pace of technological development and globalization has multiplied and reinforced the ability of states to effectively harness technology to foster intercultural communication and the cross-pollination of ideas. As a result, within a more complex and interdependent world, traditional hard-power must be regarded as equal to soft-power in driving changes within international affairs.

Arguably, engagement through the cross-cultural exchange of goods and ideas is heavily opposed or scrutinised by the North Korean regime, fearful as it is of the potentially disastrous effects of consumer cultural materials upon its people, and interpreting the control of such materials as central to the security of the state. Despite this, the regime has appeared increasingly receptive to such outside imports; with the ever-increasing access to consumer goods and business opportunities for ordinary citizens signalling a quiet consumer market revolution. This has been highlighted by the opening of Western-style restaurants and eateries in Pyongyang, the emergence of 387 state-sanctioned markets throughout the country as of 2017, and the existence of indigenous cellphones, solar panels and Coca-Cola becoming progressively more commonplace within the capital. However, purchasing foreign technology and outside media, and criticisms of the Kim family are still considered serious punishable offenses.

North Korea has already demonstrated its potential as a willing interpreter and recipient of soft power most evidently in the form of high-culture soft power through the mechanism of knowledge sharing. This can be interpreted as a tool for engagement and long-term influence with the regime; as engagement within agriculture, food security, public health and medicine through this avenue have had demonstrated effects on the material well-being of North Koreans.

Skepticism of the outside world has not curtailed the degree of influence which China has extended over the hermit kingdom through bilateral trade, which increased tenfold between 2000 to 2015, and peaked at USD$6.86 billion in 2014. China’s grassroots-oriented approach to North Korea has had a noted impact upon its economy and society, with reports that North Korean society is becoming more pluralistic, and is seeing the emergence of an entrepreneurial class. This has bolstered the proposition that MNCs and FDI can be utilised as a vehicle for soft-power dissemination, because they can lead to improvements in social conditions via education, information exchange, knowledge-building and transmission.

Nonetheless, the regime’s protracted strategy here appears to align with its core Juche ideology; one which seeks self-sufficiency and political seclusion. In advocating entrepreneurial activity and competition between small businesses, the regime’s recent experimentation with capitalism seeks to emulate China’s developmental success – elevating its citizens’ living standards while aiming to sidestep the associated socioeconomic and political consequences of such changes.

Given the capacity of the CCP to maintain its one-party authoritarian dictatorship over China whilst successfully transitioning into a capitalist system, there is much doubt about the potential effectiveness of soft-power diplomacy on the isolated North Korean state. While the potential for soft-power to effect political change within states is questionable, its established capacity to foster peace, prosperity and broader international stability through economic interdependence with other states is more than sufficient for policy-makers to pursue with North Korea.

Active soft-power

Notably, the consistent use of “active” soft-power is one strategy which has already had a significant impact upon the North Korean government and its citizens. In this sense, the term “active soft-power” can be understood as a positive action undertaken through soft-power means.

At eleven sites along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) separating the two Koreas, loudspeakers constructed by the South Korean army can be heard blasting political content and K-pop songs up to 24 kilometers into the North – the effectiveness of which can be determined by the North’s repeated threats to fire across the border and destroy such speakers once they are effectively located. Additionally, following the recent high-profile case of a North Korean soldier defecting across the DMZ under gunfire at Panmunjom, it was reported that upon awakening in the hospital following surgery, the first thing the solider requested was for some Choco Pies.

Recalling the Cold War phenomenon of blue jeans and its abrasive effect upon Soviet ideological propaganda and control, the case can be made that increased access to consumer goods has a significant effect upon the psyche of both citizens and soldiers. While the North endeavours to restrict what permeates their borders, this has not stopped activists in the South from smuggling anti-regime propaganda, mobile phones, USBs containing South Korean dramas, and Choco Pies into the country and having a noted effect on the populace, as illustrated by the ever-increasing number of defectors and thriving black market scene. This has prompted calls from North Korean defectors residing in the South for the West to increase its use of soft-power strategies against the regime. Indeed, sanctions suffocate the forces of change in North Korea; they stifle elements of reform and drive the citizenry back into the confidence of the state.


The notion of restricting the North's nuclear and missile ambitions through military provocations is one which serves to reinforce and feed government propaganda; which falls in line with the regime’s perpetual use of fear and coercion to rally its citizenry, and enabling the maintenance of perpetual isolation under the notion of self-reliance contained within Juche ideology. As observed throughout history, winning the hearts and minds of ordinary people is central to achieving victory and lasting peace.

You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar. The US and its allies must recognise this and depart from their zero-sum Manichean policies if they truly seek wider peace and security on the Korean Peninsula. Peace cannot be maintained by force; it can only be achieved through understanding, one Choco Pie at a time.

Jonathan Lim is the East Asia Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

bottom of page