I teach theories of International Relations (hereafter IR) at Sookmyung and I always emphasize two points in class. Firstly, our thinking about what goes on around the world is heavily shaped by theories we knowingly or unknowingly internalize to ourselves. We often hear people say that theory is one thing and practice another. Some people even say that we can understand world affairs without the help of IR theories since facts will speak for themselves. These commonsensical views are far from the truth. We cannot understand enormously complicated and interrelated world affairs without a simplifying device of theories. As John Maynard Keynes once mentioned, those who think themselves as practical people are in fact slaves of academic scribblers who died long ago. Similarly, our views of world affairs, which we might think as personal or even original, have already been thoroughly theorized by IR scholars and incorporated into the genealogy of IR theories. Therefore, the reason why we need to study IR theories is to make explicit the influence of IR theories on our views about world affairs and to learn about each theory’s strengths as well as its biases and blind spots. Secondly, theories are akin to colored lenses, and depending on which lenses you are wearing, a single event can be interpreted quite differently in a fashion similar to the story that unfolds in Kurosawa Akira’s movie, Rashomon.
To show why it is important to learn IR theories, I want to draw your attention to two contrasting perspectives on the causes of international conflicts, one of the major subjects in the study of IR. One perspective views IR as a realm of good vs. evil and another perspective regards IR as a realm of tragedy. Those who espouse the former view argue that there are bad leaders and bad countries that instigate conflicts and wars. In this view, if bad leaders and countries are eliminated, the world peace will come about. This view conjures up the image of typical Hollywood movies in which heroes (Rambo, Superman, Batman--you name it) defeat evil antagonists and everyone lives happily ever after. To put it simply, the good vs. evil view tell us that bad countries make wars and good countries make peace.
In contrast, scholars who emphasize a tragic nature of international politics view that war is bound to occur not because of evil leaders and bad countries, but because of the nature of the international environment which is characterized by the absence of a central authority presiding over individual states. IR scholars call the absence of a central government in IR as international anarchy. Under anarchy, survival is the top priority for all states because outside help is not always guaranteed and there is no 911 number (119 in Korea) to call in case of emergency.
Under anarchy, it is commonplace that even if countries begin arms buildups for strictly defensive purposes, owing to the uncertainty of intentions and misperception, countries find themselves in a competitive arms race, thus making them more insecure than before. The so-called “security dilemma” is an inevitable consequence of international anarchy. Those who emphasize the anarchic nature of IR and its perverse consequences on state behaviors lament this predicament and view IR as a tragedy. In a tragic view of world affairs, there are no inherently bad states; circumstances under which states interact make them behave badly and lead them to the tragic course of conflicts and wars. The reason why Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is a tragedy is that the circumstances the two main characters find themselves in lead them inexorably to a tragic end which nobody wanted in the first place.
Regarding the two contrasting views, our view about North Korea is much closer to the view of the good vs. evil dichotomy. If there’s a contest for the most evil country in the world, North Korea may win the first prize. The list that proves North Korea’s evilness is endless: the Kim Dynasty’s anachronistic three-generation succession, widespread human rights violations, famine and large scale desertion of its people, development of weapons of mass destruction, recent armed provocations in the sinking of the Cheonan and attacks on Yeonpyeong island. Compared to North Korea, South Korea is definitely a good country in many respects. Therefore, it stands to reason that we tend to view inter-Korean relations from the perspective of good vs. evil.
However, we must not lose sight of the dangers that might arise if we look at inter-Korean relations strictly from the evil vs. good dichotomy. In the realm of good and evil, elimination of evil is the ultimate solution and there’s no room for compromise or dialogue; finding a common ground with an evil force is considered to be immoral or criticized as succumbing to the evil scheme of the enemy. Applied to inter-Korean relations, the logical conclusion of dealing with “evil” North Korea is to isolate it and make it collapse or teach it a hard lesson by severely punishing it for its bad behaviors even at the risk of escalating tensions into an armed conflict. But North Korea has not shown any sign of crumbling yet. Even if it collapses someday, the end result may not be as peaceful as we hope for. As inter-Korean relations deteriorated in the last few years, Pyongyang’s dependence on Beijing has increased enormously and accordingly we have lost our leverage to influence Pyongyang’s behavior. Most importantly, if tensions spiral out of control on the Korean peninsula, it may plunge us into a disastrous war, which is a greater evil than living with “evil” North Korea.
In order to improve inter-Korean relations and to solve the North Korean nuclear puzzle, we need to pay more attention to the tragic nature of international relations in general and inter-Korean relations in particular. North Korea has done many bad things. Be that as it may, we need to acknowledge that even bad countries have legitimate security concerns. As much we fear the threats from North Korea, North Korea also has reasons to fear South Korea and its formidable ally, the United States. For a more balanced view of the situations on the Korean peninsula, what we need is a thought experiment of putting ourselves in the North Korea’s shoes. This has nothing to do with condoning the wrongdoings of North Korea. We may need to ask ourselves if there is any chance that the current situation on the Korean peninsula will make two Koreas as protagonists in a tragic drama. If the answer is positive, then it is urgent that we need to find a way to escape from this dangerous trap. Recently, after long frozen inter-Korean relations since the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong incidents, there emerged a sign that inter-Korean and US-North Korean dialogues may restart in earnest. To make the most of this opportunity, we must not forget that international relations is not just a realm of good vs. evil but a realm of tragedy.
How much do you think your view of inter-Korean relations is influenced by the good vs. evil dichotomy? If you are not convinced by what I say, take my IR theory class next semester. See you then.