North Korea and the Logic of Therapy

Try to envision North Korea as an individual. Imagine they are a person and the state system is actually a village. I hate even thinking in these terms — it really is horrible methodologically and in the opportunities for intellectual abuse it raises — but here it’s pedagogically instructive. Because if there’s a reified state out there (a state like a single individual), it’s North Korea. Yes, there might be fissures within the state. But the NKs have done well at turning their state into the blackest of black boxes. Anyway. Imagine they are the village freak — ugly, poor, shambling, belligerent, an outcast, a bearded psycho building bombs in his trailer, capable of being touched off by anything. What does a villager do with such a problem person?

In answering this question, we might gain some insight on the possibility that the state entity called North Korea will never be normal. Not even remotely normal. That there is no cure in sight, no known cure, and the best we can do is cope indeterminately with its pathologies. Call it therapeutic containment. But this containment includes constant interventions, psychological alternations between firmness and delicacy, all of the weird cat-and-mouse games Freud found himself plunged into. Why should we blame ourselves for our inability to turn North Korea into a normal state? Why shouldn’t we look at the ever-mixed track record of negotiations and decide, on balance, that the alternatives all look a lot more costly, risky, and even confusing?

One answer could be that, unlike the village freak, North Korea may not necessarily ever die. Another answer could be that North Korea is a sovereign state and we should leave them alone for once. A third answer is that North Korea merits so little trust that the best risk to take is a graduated get-tough approach. I don’t have time to anatomize the pluses and minuses of each of these answers, but I do think they all fail spectacularly or peter out at some point on their logical chain. And I do think the undertheorized logic of therapeutics has some pretty concrete applications in the IR and foreign-policy puzzles raised by US-North Korea relations.

Cross-posted at Postmodern Conservative.