A Roundtable Review of Il Hyun Cho’s Global Rogues and Regional Orders: The Multidimensional Challenge of North Korea and Iran

By | May 05, 2016 | No Comments

Mass Games in Pyongyang | Image: Stephan via Flickr

A still of the Mass Games in Pyongyang | Image: Stephan/Flickr

Il Hyun Cho’s Global Rogues and Regional Orders: The Multidimensional Challenge of North Korea and Iran seeks to test the “global” narrative of the two as “rogue states” that flout the international nuclear weapons taboo. Dr. Cho argues that this narrative is not wholly global; instead, it is largely a creation of U.S. foreign policy and security concerns in tandem with the role conceptions of regional actors in a fluctuating security environment. Importantly for security studies, Dr. Cho focuses on regional understandings and consequences of security challenges purported to come from North Korea and Iran.

Objection to the “rogue state” narrative vis-à-vis North Korea isn’t new. Alexandra Homolar, for example, argues that the “rogue state” security narrative grew out of elite political contestation in Washington at the end of the Cold War. In Homolor’s assessment, “[S]ecurity narratives help to establish a discursive connection between the articulation of a country’s national interests, the identification of specific security threats to these interests and how potential risks to the broader international environment are understood.”

Mining governmental and scholarly sources, Cho seeks to problematize the US-led campaign to name, shame, and cajole these two states into giving up their nuclear pursuits by focusing on regional role conceptions (à la K. J. Holsti) of neighboring states. As the reviewers below suggest, Cho’s challenge to the dominant narrative is an important reminder to policymakers of their role in the complex construction of adversarial states, but as a work of social science the narrow focus on regional role identity risks shortchanging the power relations involved in dealing practically with the nuclear threat. – Darcie Draudt, Director of Research

A Roundtable Review of Il Hyun Cho’s Global Rogues and Regional Orders: The Multidimensional Challenge of North Korea and Iran

by Sino-NK

Cho, Il Hyun. Global Rogues and Regional Orders: The Multidimensional Challenge of North Korea and Iran. Oxford University Press, 2015. 264 pp. ISBN: 9780199355471

Table of Contents1)Views expressed are authors’ own.

I. Van Jackson, “Narrative Matters: Regional Reactions to a Nuclear North Korea”

II. Daniel Wertz, “Constructing Rogue States”

Narrative Matters: Regional Reactions to a Nuclear North Korea

by Van Jackson (College of Security Studies at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies)

In Global Rogues and Regional Orders, Il Hyun Cho challenges what he considers the American and global nonproliferation community’s view of North Korea’s nuclear capability as a threat. Key to this critique is Cho’s attention to the competing narratives and policies surrounding North Korean activities in the region. The author is right to look to Northeast Asia for impacts; Americans in particular need the constant reminder that no matter how sweeping the vision, all strategy is local. But while there is much to commend about this book, the narrative it constructs of regional- and global-level perspectives is troublingly selective and occasionally inaccurate.

The book poses an important question that has implications for scholars and policymakers alike: When it comes to the North Korean (and to a lesser extent Iranian) nuclear issue, how do we explain the range of policies among regional players, and between regional players and the United States? This is a puzzle worthy of systematic inquiry. The book’s chosen lens — role theory — is also a promising way to approach the puzzle. For those less familiar, the premise of role theory is that state behavior can be conditioned by, or even originate from, self-conceptions of its current and desired purpose in relation to others. Though an oversimplification, role theory reminds us that where one sits in relation to foreign policy can determine where one stands on it as well.

Framing the puzzle thusly, Global Rogues and Regional Orders puts forward two related arguments. The first is that the regional status-oriented ambitions of China, Japan, and South Korea have shaped — even determined — “their threat perceptions and policy preferences vis-à-vis North Korea.” (p. 3) The second is that regional understandings of the North Korean nuclear challenge reflect a rejection of what the book calls the “global rogue” narrative advanced by the United States. This inconsistency in narratives across the United States and regional actors is why, according to the book at least, friction among the players often trumped any cooperation imperative with the United States and each other. The policy prediction that follows from this argument is that as long as the United States persists in approaching the North Korean (and Iranian) nuclear problem through a global lens, it will fail to adequately meet the challenge.

To make its case, the book chronicles an understudied period in the literature on the North Korean nuclear issue: the late 1990s through the Obama administration. This empirical emphasis is a contribution in its own right. Neither theorists nor Korea watchers have paid enough attention to the crucial post-Agreed Framework rapprochement phase in North Korea’s foreign relations, which ended shortly after the Bush administration came into office. And yet the most valuable contribution this book makes is its emphasis on Northeast Asian regionalism, which hardly ever existed except in the context of the North Korean nuclear issue. Indeed, it would not be a stretch to suggest that the book is probably of greater interest to scholars of regionalism than to Korea watchers.

The text is amply documented, but the persuasiveness of the book’s arguments is hampered by theoretical and empirical shortcomings. The research design of the book does not leave the reader with much confidence in its findings, even though — perhaps ironically — the more generalizable argument (that status conceptions at the regional level distort foreign policy choices) is logically persuasive. In the introductory chapter, the survey of literature that plausibly bears on the book’s identified research puzzle is dismissed with something of a hand-wave, amounting to a mere three and a half pages.

While it is clear, for example, that regional approaches to the North Korean nuclear issue cannot be reduced to material or “strategic” factors alone, North Korean nuclear weapons are unquestionably motivated by, and affect, strategic factors in the region. So too with arguments about regional behavior based on domestic coalitions or threat perceptions, both of which are cast as failed alternatives to the role theory argument advanced in the book. But these explanations — strategic factors, domestic coalitions, and threat perceptions — are not really set up as alternatives to role theory and the author’s narrative implicitly subsumes these explanations, which means they cannot logically be also cast as competing alternatives. State-level concerns about regional status do not, at any rate, exist apart from the strategic environment, and anyone who follows South Korean politics knows how important both ruling and opposition party coalitions are to South Korea’s foreign policy preferences.

It is entirely unclear how Cho’s tracing of regional behavior based on role theory would be different from that of other explanations like neoclassical realism, which conscientiously weaves together strategic, domestic political, and perceptual factors into a single explanatory framework. This book missed an opportunity to compare the explanatory power of its preferred argument with others in a very specific context — regionalism surrounding the North Korean nuclear issue. Doing so would have bolstered the theoretical case.

Theoretical issues aside, Korea watchers and analysts of US foreign policy in particular may find the narrative that the book advances frustrating in its highly debatable historiography and the sometimes misleading way it caricatures the views of the United States and others. I mention four here by way of example, but others of less importance cropped up throughout the text.

First, to justify the use of role theory as an explanation, the book suggests “South Korea’s threat perception of North Korea has been substantially lowered” despite “North Korea’s increasing nuclear capabilities and aggressive behavior.” This is simply inaccurate. Who can honestly look at South Korean policy toward North Korea under Park Geun-hye and claim that South Korean threat perceptions of North Korea are somehow lower now than under her predecessors, Lee Myung-bak or Roh Moo-hyun? One can of course blame conservative South Korean politics for heightened threat perceptions if one wishes, but that does not change the fact that the past two South Korean administrations have placed growing — not lessening — emphasis on North Korea as a threat.

Second, in an attempt to contrast the highly inclusive “Perry Process” of the late 1990s — which coordinated US North Korea policy with that of its allies — with the “Bush doctrine” toward North Korea, the book wrongly puts blame on the United States for elimination of the Trilateral Coordination Oversight Group (TCOG). Neither South Korea nor Japan were all that interested in TCOG precisely because it shone such a bright light on cooperation between their two countries, which was bad for domestic politics on both sides. Americans, particularly in the Bush administration, had supported the TCOG. But when the Six-Party Talks started gathering momentum, it was Japan and South Korea — not the United States — that were eager to allow the TCOG to take a backseat to multilateralism.

Third and relatedly, the author’s general narrative about South Korea is quite distorted. South Korea is cast as seeking an independent foreign policy and aiming to be a hub of regionalism. Both of these ambitions are true of course, but equally true is that South Korea was (and still is) reluctant to give any appearance that it may be positioning itself against China, which historically manifests as reticence about trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan. Its regionalist ambitions, in other words, were inherently in tension with and mostly subordinate to its own geopolitical games and antipathy toward Japan. One cannot be a “balancer” (to use Roh Moo-hyun’s characterization) and an integrator. The book’s narrative about South Korea’s internal role conception is therefore either damningly incomplete or role theory is a poor basis for explaining South Korea’s foreign policy choices — it cannot be a champion of regionalism and perpetuate regional fragmentation at the same time. And even during the days of Sunshine Policy engagement and a surface-level inter-Korean solidarity (uri minjokkirri), North and South Korea were engaged in endless jockeying for legitimacy as the “real” Korea, something entirely left out of the book’s narrative.

Finally, the second of the book’s two major arguments is based on a caricature of the United States: specifically, that the United States took a “global” rather than regional approach to the North Korean nuclear issue. In this context, the book proposes to interpret the US “global” approach as one focused on bilateral alliances and denuclearization while others had different cooperation and security priorities. This is at best an exaggeration.

The Six-Party Talks (6PT) was championed by China due to pressure from the United States to do so. The Bush administration was obstinately wedded to the 6PT construct, in part because North Korea wanted to negotiate in a bilateral format. In contrast with either unilateralism or universalism, the 6PT were an explicitly regional approach unique to US policy in Northeast Asia. If the United States were insensitive to local differences among regional players, it might have appointed nuclear nonproliferation specialists to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue. Yet the two most notable Special Envoys during the Bush and Obama administrations — James Kelly and Stephen Bosworth — were Korea hands with long histories working Asia issues, not nuclear nonproliferation specialists. The book even quotes Gary Samore, an Obama administration arms control expert, acknowledging that Northeast Asian states are occasionally “reluctant to hold their bilateral relations with Pyongyang completely hostage to the nuclear issue.” If this is not US recognition of local security dynamics and competing preferences, then what is? The United States might have viewed North Korea as a global threat, but its approach to North Korea was and remains sensitive to regional differences.

Ultimately, despite offering level-headed policy insights and a novel theoretical claim, the book seems unable to decide what it wants to be. In some respects, it can be considered an analysis of Northeast Asian regionalism, but one without disciplined discussion about its causes or consequences. Were attempts at regionalism nothing more than status-chasing by regional states? Was it an alternative to North Korean denuclearization? Or was it the only plausible path to denuclearization? These are contradictory questions, yet at different points the book seems to answer “yes” to all of the above. These questions, moreover, stray from the initial framing of the book as competing global and regional narratives about a nuclear North Korea.

In the end, the claim that global nuclear proliferation can only be resolved by responsiveness to the regional level concerns of those countries surrounding would-be proliferators is a persuasive one. But how to engage regionally and whether such localized approaches can produce diplomatic breakthroughs are questions too big for this book to answer.

South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, when he met President George W. Bush at the White House in 2008 | Image: Wikicommons

South Korean president, Roh Moo-hyun, when he met President George W. Bush at the White House in 2008 | Image: Wikicommons

Constructing Rogue States

by Daniel Wertz (National Committee on North Korea)

Il Hyun Cho’s Global Rogues and Regional Orders applies a constructivist approach to proliferation studies, looking at how nuclear aspirant states such as Iran and North Korea are perceived by their neighbors, and how these perceptions intersect with the rogue state narrative advanced by the United States. Dr. Cho primarily examines US and regional approaches to North Korea under the administrations of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, while also addressing (in a significantly less comprehensive manner) the differing regional responses to Iran’s nuclear program. Global Rogues thus sets out to provide a generalizable framework on the regional dynamics of proliferation, providing a unique perspective on this topic but ultimately falling short of a convincing assessment.

The study posits that, amidst changing regional orders in the Middle East and East Asia, political elites within each of the countries neighboring Iran and North Korea face competing choices: pursuing an internally-shaped regional role (such as being an independent actor, a regional hub, or a rising power), or pursuing an externally-shaped one (driven by the country’s relationship with the United States). A policymaker’s perception of the “global rogue” in the region, according to this schema, flows from these competing narratives of their state’s regional role: advocates of an internally-shaped role will seek to engage the rogue state in order to advance their regional interests, while supporters of the externally-shaped role will take a more hardline approach in order to strengthen their country’s relationship with the United States. The book’s emphasis on the primacy of regional roles in shaping threat perceptions leads to the provocative conclusion that “the regional understanding of the North Korean challenge has little to do with the nuclear dimension,” but instead is driven “by the complex interaction between the internally shaped and US-directed regional roles.” (pp. 75-76)  A similar dynamic, he argues, has applied to the Iranian challenge in the Middle East.

This framework’s contrast of internally- and externally-shaped roles allows for a thoughtful and novel perspective when the author assesses the sources for either tension or overlap between the two. One of the book’s strengths is its examination of Chinese, South Korean, and Japanese visions of regionalism around the turn of the century, and how shifts in US policy toward North Korea from the late Clinton to the early Bush administrations affected these efforts. The Perry Process of the late 1990s brought US nonproliferation policy in sync with East Asian countries’ attempts to expand regional cooperation and redefine their roles in the region. However, during the Bush administration (especially in its first term, on which the book focuses), a hardline approach to North Korea created a gulf between local and US-driven visions of regional order, undermining hopes for a more robust multilateral security regime in East Asia.

In the Middle Eastern context, the model of competing external and internal regional roles is most usefully applied to the US-Turkey relationship during the early Obama administration. Ankara’s regional-minded efforts to engage with Tehran (part of its “zero problems with neighbors” policy) clashed with the US-led campaign to step up pressure over Iran’s nuclear program. Tension over these competing visions of regional order led to the failure of a fuel swap agreement brokered by Turkey and Brazil in 2010, and to Ankara’s subsequent vote against new sanctions in the UN Security Council.

However, the book’s emphasis on regional role identity as a fundamental source of foreign policy conduct is far too rigid. The author’s insistence that “threat perceptions and policy discussions were contested not on the basis of external structural conditions or material factors but on the basis of contending domestic views of what their nation’s regional role should be like” (p. 153) severely limits the study’s exploration of the interplay between US-led nonproliferation efforts and regional politics. While ideational factors are important components of foreign policy behavior, unraveling their complex relationship with material factors and policymakers’ threat assessments is crucial to a fully realized analysis.

Global Rogues’ heavy emphasis on role conceptions limits its explanatory power, and the historical narrative it provides sometimes seems contorted to fit its theoretical framework. South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, for example, is presented as a means for Seoul to enhance its own regional role, rather than as a policy chiefly concerned with changing the nature of the inter-Korean relationship, with enhanced regional ties a secondary benefit stemming from more normalized relations. Israel’s growing apprehension toward Iran, beginning in the 1990s, is presented not as a response to Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and support for terrorist groups targeting Jews, but as an effort to “recast its regional role as a staunch US ally.” (p. 135) When Global Rogues considers the views of more conservative policymakers in US-aligned countries, it tends to characterize them as “threat inflation” or “North Korea bashing,” and to present them as auxiliary to efforts by states to enhance their ties with the US by following external preferences, rather than as policies genuinely rooted in a sense of threat or insecurity. In cases where a state’s leaders adopt hardline policies that aren’t aligned with the US approach – such as Japan’s insistence on addressing the abduction issue during the Six Party Talks, or Israel and Saudi Arabia’s skepticism toward nuclear diplomacy with Iran – their actions are written off simply as being made for domestic political gain.

By narrowly focusing on conceptions of regional roles, Global Rogues misses opportunities to explore the gaps between local and US threat perceptions and security interests. Tensions between the US and South Korea during much of the Sunshine period are framed as a consequence of conflicting regional visions, and not as the result of differing views of the nature of the North Korean challenge and how best to address it. In some cases, differing threat perceptions and priorities have led the US to restrain its allies in the Middle East or East Asia from pursuing aggressive action against the “rogue state” in their neighborhood, whether discouraging Israel from launching a pre-emptive strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities; cautioning South Korea against a disproportionate response to the shelling of Yeonpyeong-do in 2010; or implicitly restraining South Korea, Japan, and Saudi Arabia from their own potential development of nuclear weapons. These examples turn inside out the “external regional role” framework offered by the book, yet go largely unexplored.

Furthermore, apart from its contrast of the Perry process and early Bush administration policies, Dr. Cho’s framework seems to take the US perception of “global rogues” – epitomized by reference to President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech and the 2002 National Security Strategy – as a fixed variable, rather than one that has adjusted amidst changing circumstances. The book gives little effort to explain why the Bush administration reversed course on its North Korea policy in 2007-2008, nor why the Obama administration invested so much political capital in its diplomatic outreach to Iran. Such omissions allow for the author to adhere to a relatively straightforward analytical framework, but do not do justice to the complexity of the perceptions and dynamics shaping US and regional approaches to nonproliferation.

Dr. Cho is certainly correct in observing that “successful nuclear diplomacy will remain a daunting task” unless regional countries align their interests with the US, and unless the US in turn appreciates the regional dynamics at play. (p. 156) While the regional responses to the nuclear ambitions of Iran and North Korea have been very different, his study takes an ambitious approach in attempting to connect them through a unified theoretical framework. Despite its limitations, Global Rogues and Regional Orders demonstrates a creative approach to assessing the dynamics of proliferation, and points the way to further research on the interplay of nuclear proliferation and regional politics.


1 Views expressed are authors’ own.

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