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Huis Clos: The Limits of Understanding North Korean Decisionmaking

Jeffrey Lewis

Jeffrey Lewis is Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies.

This essay is one of five essays in the book review roundtable on Jonathan Pollack's No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security.

When the Institute of International Strategic Studies transformed its Venerable Adelphi Papers into a series of book-length monographs, I had my doubts. However, Jonathan Pollack’s No Exit: North Korea, Nuclear Weapons and International Security is a wonderful book that demonstrates the upside of such an approach.

Pollack opens with a damning picture of the U.S. policy debate over whether or not to engage the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This debate is dominated by what Pollack calls an “if only” approach to policy, with advocates for differing policy approaches convinced that their respective approaches have not been pursued fully enough to succeed. Such an approach necessarily reduces the DPRK to little more than an automaton that responds mechanically to U.S. provocation or weakness, depending on the policy of choice.

Pollack sets for himself the difficult but ultimately rewarding goal of painting North Korea back into the picture as a strategic actor in its own right, with its own perceptions and motivations. To this end, he has assembled an impressive—and diverse—array of sources to access Pyongyang’s strategic motivations. Pollack has done a masterful job of attempting to peer inside the North Korean regime despite its opacity. He cites interviews with diplomats who met Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, as well as documents from the archives of former Communist governments in Eastern Europe. He twice traveled to North Korea for Track 2 dialogues with North Korean officials. Even his acknowledgements have three footnotes.

Pollack has an eye for anecdotes that advance the narrative, which is essentially chronological, while also illuminating constant features of the regime. His description of how Kim Il-sung sought to avoid dependence on either the Soviet Union or China, frequently playing one against the other, is eye-opening, particularly as North Korea elicited economic assistance and security guarantees during the Cold War from reluctant partners in Moscow and Beijing. Among the profoundly misguided bits of conventional wisdom that distort discussions about North Korea’s nuclear weapons, none is more pernicious than the view that Pyongyang is simply a Chinese puppet. Pollack [End page 171] provides a careful and accessible account of North Korean diplomatic activities to demonstrate the full complexity of relations between Beijing and Pyongyang.

Yet despite his impressive scholarship, which exceeds that of any comparable study, No Exit still reads like a particularly impressive piece of Soviet-era Kremlinology. It is insightful, provocative, and stimulating, but the actual object of discussion remains tantalizingly out of reach. Pollack explains his choice of title, appropriated from Jean-Paul Sartre’s play No Exit, in terms of its ambiguous rendering in Korean. It is perhaps worth noting that the original title of Sartre’s work in French is Huis Clos, which is the French administrative equivalent of “in camera”—a proceeding held behind closed doors. If there is a shortcoming of this book, it is that despite Pollack’s considerable ingenuity, the decisionmaking in Pyongyang remains “huis clos.”

It is hard to fault Pollack, who has demonstrated considerable perspicacity in seeking new sources of insight. North Korea is simply a difficult subject. The lack of insight into the formal decisionmaking process means that time and again the reader is asked to understand a decision by the DPRK in terms of the outlook of Kim Il-sung and, to a lesser degree, Kim Jong-il. At the outset, Pollack takes note of Jacques Hymans’s The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation. [1]

This comment, made in passing, is telling. Much of the implicit methodology of No Exit reflects what Hymans would call psychology—questions of how leaders conceive of their national identity. Later, Pollack describes the North Korean regime as based on a system of “adversarial nationalism”—an echo of Hymans’s notion of “oppositional nationalism” (p. 184).

Often this approach is extraordinarily revealing. In 1956 the Soviet Union and China forced Kim Il-sung to stop a purge of North Korean officials, many of whom had long-standing ties to Moscow and Beijing. When the Hungarian revolution broke out shortly after, in October 1956, Kim took advantage of events to resume the purge, according to Pollack, using show-trials, imprisonments, and executions over the next year. Having ruthlessly eliminated Moscow’s influence in Pyongyang, Kim used his newly consolidated position in September 1959 to pressure Khruschev into expanding nuclear assistance to the DPRK. Khruschev told Mao, “Both you and we have Koreans who fled from Kim Il Sung. But this does not give us grounds to spoil relations” (p. 40). It is difficult not to conclude from this event that one has learned something very important about the man who would lead North Korea toward a nuclear- weapons capability. [End page 172]

At other times, however, Pollack presumes an intimacy with his subjects, particularly Kim Il-sung, that seems inappropriately familiar. We are, for example, told that a perceived slight by Khruschev “reinforced [the elder] Kim’s determination to pursue an independent course” (p. 41). In another instance, he discusses the “principal considerations that shaped Kim’s thinking,” describing Kim in turn as “momentarily reassured” by Chinese and Soviet moves, “envious and fearful” of South Korea’s covert nuclear efforts, and “concerned” about the issue of succession (p. 83). In another case, “Kim no doubt recognized that his enduring strategic nightmare was at hand” (p. 105). Although such journeys into Kim Il-sung’s inner mental life are not the norm in the text, when they do occur, they are jarring.

Any author must make judgments about the motivations of essential strategic actors. In most cases, Pollack shows impressive scholarship in documenting his assessments. For example, Kim Il-sung expressed his concern about succession to Romanian leader Nikolai Ceauşescu, and Pollack cites a document from the Romanian archive recording this exchange. In other cases, however, the interpretation belongs to secondary sources or is, implicitly, the judgment of the author based on the totality of evidence.

Such liberties would be more an issue of style than substance were it not for the stark conclusion that Pollack draws: “North Korea does not treat nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip, and instead views these weapons as central to its identity and security planning. Periodic hints by the North that it might be prepared to exchange its nuclear capabilities for economic aid cannot be taken seriously” (p. 207). This conclusion appears largely justified on the basis of the considerable information Pollack has assembled. It happens to be very close to my own view. But despite Pollack’s impressive scholarship and my own intuition, one must admit that this hypothesis is based on an incomplete picture of the DPRK that lacks much basis in the inner workings of the regime in Pyongyang.

It is tempting to use “North Korea” interchangeably with “Kim Jong-il” or, for the Cold War period, “Kim Il-sung.” Yet one simply does not know whether either leader’s preferences have been determinative within the North Korean system. We can be sure that not all North Koreans view their place in the world in exactly the same way—if only from Kim Il-sung’s expressed concern about whether younger cadres might not appreciate the dangers from the West as he did. Are there politics in North Korea? Do they matter for the nuclear weapons program? Toward the end of the book, Pollack quotes one source describing the DPRK as “riven with internal fault lines that often inhibit major decisions,” but he does not pursue this line of inquiry further (p. 193). [End page 173]

The truth is that we simply do not know. Here, a return to Hymans is helpful. In his essay on North Korea, which offers a similarly grim assessment of the prospects for progress with Pyongyang, Hymans cautions readers that his innovative analysis of the psychological aspects of nuclear decisionmaking in North Korea may depend on the “possibly questionable empirical claim” that “when it comes to setting strategic objectives in the nuclear area, Kim Jong Il’s word is the law.” [2] Hymans then points to the work of Patrick McEachern, who argues that North Korean statements hint at limited political competition within the DPRK. McEachern’s book Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-totalitarian Politics scrutinizes official statements to reveal how the party, military, and cabinet “compete to shape the information and options available to Kim Jong Il and the ways in which his decisions are implemented.” [3] Hymans concludes with a cautionary note that “because real evidence is in short supply, alternative claims are certainly plausible. And since they are plausible, the theory presented in this article is not inconsistent with an eventual decision by Kim Jong-il to end the DPRK’s nuclear effort.” [4]

No Exit requires similar caution. Pollack has done a tremendous service in attempting to understand Pyongyang as a strategic actor in its own right. Moreover, he has done so with an impressive survey of the real evidence that is in such short supply. Pollack’s advice for policymakers is balanced and sober. He is careful to state that denuclearization is not a fool’s errand, and there is little to disagree with in his recommendation that policymakers emphasize risk minimization for the foreseeable future, while waiting for the stars to align for denuclearization. If we add only a word of humility about our insight into the celestial mechanics of the DPRK, we can best appreciate Pollack’s contribution: No Exit is the beginning of a change in how we understand the challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons rather than the end of a futile discussion with Pyongyang about eliminating its nuclear weapons programs. [End page 174]


[1] Jacques E.C. Hymans, The Psychology of Nuclear Proliferation: Identity, Emotions and Foreign Policy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[2] Jacques E.C. Hymans, “Assessing North Korean Nuclear Intentions and Capacities: A New Approach,” Journal of East Asian Studies 8, no. 2 (2008): 259–92.

[3] Patrick McEachern, Inside the Red Box: North Korea’s Post-totalitarian Politics (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010). The description of McEachern’s work is taken from Andrew Nathan’s review in Foreign Affairs 90, no. 3 (2011): 165–66.

[4] Hymans, “Assessing North Korean Nuclear Intentions and Capacities.”