If tomorrow’s media headlines were to announce the demise of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, aka North Korea), how would Americans react? Would we consider it good news or bad? Arguably, our initial response would be elation and we would rejoice that this volatile and hostile state, which threatens mankind with nuclear catastrophe and has starved millions of its own citizens to death, was no more. The Korean people, the Northeast Asian region, and the world as a whole would certainly feel safer for the loss. Except for the radical fringe, no one would shed a tear, no communist or non- communist, no Korean or non-Korean, no liberal or conservative.
For the past two decades, US decision-makers have molded our policy toward North Korea on two premises: first, the popular notion that North Korea is teetering on the brink of imminent systemic collapse and, second, the unquestioned assumption that such a collapse is in the best interest of the United States. In the mid-1980s, neither government experts nor academic analysts would have entertained the prospect of a DPRK continuing into the year 2005. We were mistaken, for North Korea still exists. Yet, very little effort has been devoted to understanding why we were wrong for twenty years. Even less effort is expended on reassessing US interests in a North Korean collapse, the range of options open to US policy in shaping the future of the DPRK, and the long-term implications for the United States.