North Korea: The Eastern End of the “Axis of Evil”

November 8, 2002

One of the most remarkable things about the presidentially designated “axis of evil” in the world today is the heterogeneity of the countries involved. Iraq, Iran and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) have different forms of government and different languages and cultures, and they harbor widely varying attitudes toward religion. Iraq is an Arabian secular socialist dictatorship; Iran is an Islamic republic with Persian culture; while North Korea, the focus of this paper, is a classic totalitarian communist state—if not quite the last of the breed.

As has been noted in previous Landpower Essays,1 from a religious point of view, Iran is the most intense of the three, ensconcing its ruling clerics and official faith on pedestals above the law of man. Iraq follows with a more relaxed view of the role of religion in society, attaching greater importance to tribal identity. North Korea trails the others with a denial of the legitimacy of faith in society altogether, focusing instead on atheist dogma.

Still another point to be noted about this unholy trinity is that, as a group, the countries bear little resemblance to U.S. foes of the last century. In World War I, our enemies were led by crowned heads of Christendom. In World War II we faced a mixture of fascism in Europe and military dictatorship in Asia. In the Cold War (to include Korea and Vietnam) the adversary was international communism. The mix today is nothing of the sort; in fact, two of the three, Iran and Iraq, are mutually antagonistic, and neither has much interest in the third—save as a source of particularly destructive weapons.

And there we find a bonding link. All three have aspired to regional power through the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and the means for long-range delivery. This vital matter, besides their common antipathy for the United States, is at the heart of their designation as members of an “axis of evil.” As President George W. Bush set forth in his address to the graduating class at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York on 1 June 2002, “The gravest danger to freedom lies at the crossroads of radicalism and technology.” Clearly he perceives these countries as outstanding examples of our most important post-communist bloc enemies. This essay is an examination of the poorest, but the one which has probably achieved the greatest advances in the development of a capacity to strike potential foes at great distance and with the most devastating of instruments.

The discussion begins with a brief examination of U.S. interests in Korea and of our public rationale for involvement in the region. Subsequent sections deal with DPRK weapons of mass destruction; conventional forces; the DPRK as a terrorist state; North and South Korean strategic interests, objectives and strategy; reconciliation; the interests of China, Japan and Russia; and conclusions.

It is the question of mass destruction weaponry that is most cogent in this discussion, but geography also plays a large part. The DPRK lies at the juncture of three of the world’s greatest powers: China, Japan and Russia. The United States joined this incendiary combination just a century and a half ago with the arrival of Commodore Matthew Perry in Tokugawa, Japan. Since then, all of the powers have fought one another or, at times, stood apart in hostile seclusion. The history of the region has been an unhappy one of war, occupation and dictatorship. While, as will be seen, some observers are optimistic for developments on the Korean Peninsula later in the current century, the historical record provides little basis for encouragement.