North Korea: Pariah Power

Cheryl Rofer (via Progressive Realist), at the end of an informative post about the North Korean nuclear test, adds this as an afterthought:

. . . North Korea, partly on its own and partly because of the actions ofother countries, is isolated in a way that no other country is. It canbe reasonably sure there will be no military retaliation because ofSeoul’s proximity and China’s fear of a flood of refugees. So it isfree to do as it pleases. And, whatever its objectives may be, it canfreely pursue them. This is where strategies of isolating andsanctioning countries leads. The rest of the world has little leverage.

That mirrors my reaction, with one important distinction, when I first heard the news of the test, followed by the list of condemnations — including China’s — that poured out in response. North Korea, I found myself thinking with a strange combination of horror and admiration, has achieved a level of near-perfect isolation. It is the epitome of a pariah, with all the power that a pariah has. But I’d conceived of that power in the context of René Girard’s mimetic rivalry and scapegoat theory, that is, power over the collective imagination.

Rofer makes the case for isolation as a source of real geopolitical power. That’s intellectually satisfying to me, even if, in this case, it appears to be complicated by the presence of both a conventional and now a nuclear deterrent, as well as by the fact that the “near” in near-perfect isolation is another way of saying China.

Still, I’ve argued that isolation as a policy tool is likely to fail, because it is obsolete in the age of interconnectedness. That, for example, is the fatal flaw of our Iran policy. Rofer’s argument suggests that even when isolation succeeds, it fails, because influence can not pass through the hermetic — and in some ways protective — seal it creates around its target.

Perhaps most confounding about the entire exercise is that the major objective that North Korea is now free to pursue is the end of its isolation, without which it is nothing, whether or not it keeps the warheads.