North Korea, Realism, and Humanitarian Aid

Realism remains the dominant theory in international security studies. However, one observing North Korea through a Realist lens would fail to explain the state’s behavior. North Korea is dominated by one political party that is willing to compromise national security for the wellbeing of the party.

The Structural Neo-Realist Theory rests on a core assumption of state behavior: nations relentlessly strive for security and are willing to compromise other facets of society for that cause. However, Realism supports no distinction between national and regime security. Nations are ultimately run by regimes in the form of political parties, and political parties, driven by self-interest, try to create greater opportunities for itself. When national security and regime security directly clash, as in the case of North Korea, unexpected results happen.

North Korea’s economy has been declining. By now, it should have been clear to Pyongyang leadership that economic decline is harmful to national security. However, serious reforms have been blocked for the sake of domestic political power. Supporting reforms would mean that the sanctity of Kim Il Sung’s rule will be questioned, threatening the security of the regime.

Furthermore, North Korea has rejected international humanitarian efforts the same way it rejected internal reforms. For example, Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) was blocked from reaching civilians due to the possibility of spreading “Western ideas.” Thus, North Korea is willing to compromise national security and wellbeing for the security of its regime, a direct contradiction to Realism.

In relation to more current issues, South Korea announced plans to donate $4.5 million to help the World Food Program’s DPRK humanitarian efforts. Furthermore, UNICEF is expected to receive $3.5 million from South Korea for the same purpose. This interpretation of North Korean behavior shows that if we want to provide international humanitarian aid, we need to revise our method.



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