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Loss aversion and risk taking in North Korea's militant strategy, 1967-1968.

IS NORTH KOREA INHERENTLY PREDISPOSED TO RECKLESSNESS AND BELLICOSITY in its external behavior? Does it have a peculiarly strong risk orientation? Why has it tended to demonstrate aggressiveness in uncertain or even deteriorating situations? What can account for this seeming irrationality and unpredictability? Pyongyang's nuclear and missile developments since the 1990s, coupled with incessant violations of bilateral and multilateral agreements, have consistently begged these questions.

In defining the nature of the North Korean threat and discerning its intentions, analysts have generally concluded that Pyongyang's actions since the 1990s have run counter to gains-based utility calculations based on rational choice--that is, its tendency to resort to militant actions has contradicted the gains-based expected utility principle, which predicts that actors "maximize their expected utility by weighing the utility of each possible outcome of a given action by the probability of its occurrence, summing all possible outcomes for each strategy, and selecting that strategy with the highest expected utility" (Levy 1997, 88).

As an alternative, a growing body of work on North Korean risk inclination (Cha 2002; Hwang 2006, 2009; Kim and Choy 2011) has incorporated the thesis of reference dependence and loss aversion advanced by prospect theory (Jervis 1992; Kahneman and Tversky 1979; Levy 1997; Vertzberger 1995). This work is drawn from substantial evidence that people are "more sensitive to gains and losses from a reference point rather than levels of wealth or welfare" (Kahneman and Tversky 1979, 277). The domains of gains and losses are identified by framing (Levy 1997, 90), which has a "strong or even a decisive influence on which values and beliefs will be triggered and become reference points for the choice process, because people will tend to evaluate options in relation to reference points that are suggested by the statement of the problem" (Vertzberger 1995, 362). Since people tend to overvalue losses relative to comparable gains, they are generally risk averse with respect to gains but risk accepting with respect to losses (Berejikian 1997). (1) This is because "the specter of losses activates, energizes, and drives actors, producing great efforts that risk--and frequently lead to--greater losses" (Jervis 1992, 187). In sum, people will choose risky actions when the choice is framed in terms of avoiding losses. This tendency implies that "fear is usually the more potent motivator [for risk taking] than the desire for expansion" (Jervis 1992, 194).

The thesis of loss aversion and reference dependence in prospect theory has been gaining salience in the study of Pyongyang's risk inclination, particularly with respect to North Korea's nuclear and missile development after the 1990s (Cha 2002; Hwang 2006, 2009; Kim and Choy 2011). The incorporation of prospect theory in the study of North Korean external behavior "offers room for brinkmanship policy to be interpreted as being a normal, and even understandable choice under certain circumstances" (Kim and Choy 2011, 469). That said, the standard accounts of Pyongyang's militancy based on prospect theory have disproportionately focused on the frame of losses that became predominant after the 1990s. As such, the ascent of a losses framework prior to the 1990s and its impact on North Korean risk inclination remain underexplored.

In general, it is true that a losses frame did not become predominant until after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the international socialist alliance. As one study noted, North Korea often operated from a frame of gains during the Cold War when its "livelihood was fully ensured by security patronage of the Soviet Union and China" (Cha 2002, 59). A corollary of this generalization is that the material lead North Korea held in terms of economic development, military balance, and political stability predisposed it to an expansionist outlook toward South Korea (Kihl 1984; Kim 2010).

However, a closer reading of North Korea's actual assessment of the situation during the Cold War raises some questions about the foregoing assumptions. With the exception of the 1950s when Moscow and Beijing were committed to a coordinated effort to assist Pyongyang's economic development, which enabled the regime to outperform South Korea, North Korea's national security outlook was colored, at least partially, by a frame of losses. This became apparent starting in the 1960s, against the backdrop of the Sino-Soviet split, South Korean president Park Chung-hee's military coup, the Cuban missile crisis, the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and South Korea, and South Korea's involvement in the Vietnam War. Moreover, a losses frame outweighed such factors as the security patronage of the two allies and the consolidation of Kim Il-sung's one-man rule, which, according to prospect theory, would have made North Korea risk averse.

The 1967-1968 period, however, marks a crucial turning point in Pyongyang's risk inclination, as manifested by overmilitarization, accelerated promotion of military self-reliance, and an unprecedented escalation of revolutionary militancy. These trends culminated in well-known incidents such as the commando raid on the South Korean presidential residence and the seizure of a US spy ship, the Pueblo. (2) In this article I explore whether loss aversion and reference dependence as advanced by prospect theory can explain this heightened militancy amidst a deteriorating security environment.

In order to illuminate the relevance of prospect theory for North Korean risk taking from 1967 to 1968, the analysis will highlight the centrality of anti-imperialist partnership as the key reference point in the incipient ascent of a losses frame. Following the escalation of the Sino-Soviet split in 1962, North Korea aligned with China until 1964 and then with the Soviet Union from 1965 to 1966 (Choi 2008; Chung 1978; Scalapino and Lee 1972; Shimotomai 2011; Szalontai 2005) based on the order of priority assigned to the joint and primary struggle against US imperialism (Chung 1978; Do 2013). This alignment attested to the highly ideological nature of Pyongyang's response to the breakup between the socialist powers (Buzo 1999). However, what makes 1967-1968 different is that the previous one-sided alignment was abandoned as North Korea for the first time perceived both Moscow and Beijing to be primarily focused on their antagonism toward each other rather than on jointly countering the United States. Consequently, Pyongyang assessed both countries as doubtful assets for intrabloc solidarity and its bid for hegemonic unification.

From this decisional frame of losses, Pyongyang accelerated the promotion of revolutionary violence by small countries (Cho 1969; Kim 1971) in order to "foster alliance solidarity by emphasizing the threat posed by the common adversary" (Goldstein 1995, 55). The formation of a losses frame emanating from the parallel decline of ideological unity in relations with both Moscow and Beijing rendered the militant strategy of this period rather defensive, which is consistent with Jervis's observation about fear mentioned above (Jervis 1992, 194).

The following analytic history of the insufficiently recognized losses frame behind the militant strategy from 1967 to 1968 are drawn from documents of the Cold War International History Project (CWIHP) and the North Korean International Documentation Project (NKIDP) established at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, as well as the Confidential US State Department Central Foreign Policy Files (RG), Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volumes, and official documents of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK or North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK or South Korea). The next section considers some conditions that might have led to the prevalence of a gains frame from 1967 to 1968. I then discuss how those conditions were overshadowed by an emerging frame of losses emanating from the parallel decline of ideological unity in Soviet-North Korean and Sino-North Korean relations. I conclude by drawing attention to the relevance of prospect theory for understanding Pyongyang's external risk taking during the Cold War and its implications for understanding the persistence of self-reliance in North Korean policy today. The promotion of self-reliance was, as we will see, a manifestation of fear rather than unalterable philosophical principle--fear due to the realization that neither Moscow nor Beijing could be expected to commit to a joint and primary struggle against US imperialism.

A Frame of Gains? A Reconsideration

Contrasting Alliance Politics in the Two Koreas

During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and China competed for influence in North Korea by providing economic and military assistance (Chung 1978; Radchenko 2005; Scalapino and Lee 1972; Shen and Xia 2012). Their aid supposedly neutralized North Korea's decisionmaking, "more often than not, in the domain of gains" (Cha 2002, 58). Several factors, such as the consolidation of a monolithic ideological system in North Korea throughout the 1960s and the rapprochement with the Soviet Union whose leadership after the fall of Nikita Khrushchev restored the "Stalinist view" in foreign policy (Zubok 2007), greatly enhanced Pyongyang's position. From Seoul's standpoint, one of the most profound sources of anxiety was the renewed military cooperation between the Soviet Union and North Korea, which over time became particularly effective in stepping up Pyongyang's air power. By 1968, North Korea possessed some 450 jet fighters--380 MiG-15/17s, 7 MiG-19s, and at least 60 MiG-21s. From 1965 to 1967, the number of surface-to-air missile (SA-2) sites increased from two to twenty. And North Korea had eighty IL-28 light bombers, which, with its fighters, gave it an offensive capability unmatched by the ROK air force. (3)

Moreover, Kim Il-sung commanded basically unchallenged authority by the 1960s. The Fourth Congress of the Korean Workers' Party (KWP) in 1961 designated his loyalists in the Manchurian partisan group as the key leaders in the central committee. The Soviet and Yenan Koreans had basically been eliminated (Scalapino and Lee 1972; Szalontai 2005). Party reorganization and reshuffling during the Second Representatives' Conference in 1966 reinforced this trend, and the central committee became dominated by men from professional military backgrounds (Koh 1969; Suh 1988). The KWP central committee meeting in May 1967 finally established North Korea as a partisan state.

By contrast, the Park Chung-hee regime in Seoul continued to be mired in political instability. To be sure, as Park's developmental agenda gained more public approval, the question of illegitimacy that haunted the regime did somewhat recede in importance (Hong 1991; Kim 1970; Ma 2009). However, opposition politicians, intellectuals, and student activists continued to object to many of Park's new initiatives, most notably the normalization of diplomatic relations with Japan (Kim 2010; J. Lee 2011) and, to a lesser extent, the dispatch of combat troops to Vietnam (Kim 1970; M. Lee 2011). State planning of economic development during the Park Chung-hee era saw the gross national product (GNP) expand at 9.6 percent annually from 1962 to 1976 (Kihl 1984), but still it was not until after the mid-1970s that South Korea began to rapidly leave North Korea behind on a per capita basis (Kang 2003). By 1968, the export-led strategy was showing the first signs of crisis due to serious balance of payment problems and massive layoffs in foreign investment firms that caused profound social unrest (Koo 2011).

In addition, the ROK-US alliance was beginning to show signs of strain that began in 1967 and worsened throughout 1968. This point deserves closer examination because previous scholarship has not sufficiently accounted for the undercurrent of dissension in the ROK-US alliance with respect to the nature and immediacy of the Chinese and North Korean threats prior to announcement of the Nixon Doctrine in 1969. From 1965 to 1966, Park Chung-hee's eagerness to send troops to South Vietnam made the ROK an important anticommunist asset. The so-called honeymoon period in the alliance, however, began to sour during the last months of 1966 as the administration of Lyndon B. Johnson began to articulate a new policy toward China, and US concerns about South Korean overreaction to North Korean provocations deepened (Hong 1991; Park 2009).

Starting in 1966, top US officials began to de-emphasize the portrayal of China as the main direct supporter of North Vietnam. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, and the president himself promoted a policy of containment without isolation. These US initiatives were basically dismissed by China and had no direct or immediate impact on the bilateral relationship between Seoul and Washington. Throughout 1966, the ROK sent additional combat troops to South Vietnam (Park 2012), and the US government pledged further military and economic assistance (Park 2012; Woo 1990).

Despite these moves, the two capitals advanced increasingly diverging war strategies. Seoul questioned Washington's resolve to fight until the achievement of total victory (Park 2012). Park Chung-hee characterized as "'irresponsible' statements about neutralization of SVN [South Vietnam], negotiations with the VC [Vietcong], or putting VC into a coalition government." (4) The South Korean leader portrayed Asian communism as unified under the leadership of China. To counter that threat, Park even proposed a "security alliance system consisting of allies in the Vietnam War" (Hong 1991, 175). In this context, the US debate about moderating policy toward the Chinese communists looked increasingly suspect. In the spring of 1966, the US embassy in Seoul reported that the "Fulbright [Senate] hearings and US media speculation about a change in policy toward China had cast doubt on the administration's devotion to containing Communist expansion" (Lumbers 2004, 105). The public articulation of a new China policy, coupled with the resumption of a Soviet-US search for detente since the last months of 1966, predisposed Washington to urge South Korean restraint once inter-Korean border incidents began to escalate dramatically in 1967.

From this point, the US and ROK governments began to disagree more openly on how to respond to the North Korean threat. South Korean leaders consistently advanced a maximalist interpretation of North Korean intentions: that these intrusions were not merely provocations but represented a communist plan to reunify Korea by force in early 1970. (5) Accordingly, Park Chung-hee saw retaliation as the only way to deal with the situation. During a press conference in November 1966, Park stressed that the "armistice agreement must be honored by both sides. There is limit to our patience. Should we sit idly by, suffering their attacks?" The local press speculated that he was "considering resolute measures, possibly retaliatory action to counter hostile communist maneuvers." (6) Park threatened to take unilateral action (but not "at this time") if North Korea attempted further intrusions after the failed assassination attempt on him in January 1968. He stated during a meeting with Cyrus Vance, Johnson's special envoy to Korea, that "if similar aggressive acts are committed by North Korea, however, there would be no alternative to unilateral action. If the United States joins the ROK that would be fine but unilateral action will be taken whether or not the US joins." (7)

However unpalatable North Korean actions were, the United States did not believe they warranted drastic countermeasures. More importantly, the US government did not consider them to be intended to bring about a fundamental change in the status quo on the Korean peninsula. A US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) in September 1967 noted,
   The North Koreans will almost certainly continue their campaign
   of military harassment in the DMZ [demilitarized zone],
   at current or even increased levels. We believe that North Korea
   undertook its program of violence of its own volition, not under
   pressure from either Moscow or Peking, and that this program
   does not indicate a present Communist intention to invade South
   Korea. Pyongyang is conscious of the risks inherent in such an
   action and would be reluctant to accept them. Similarly, there is
   probably no intention of escalating the DMZ attacks to a point
   at which open warfare might result. (8)

The US objective with regard to the DMZ situation was "to prevent further escalation of tension, to deescalate if possible, and to ensure that ROK troops do not violate the Armistice Agreement." (9)

North Korea's Constraints

The rapprochement in Soviet-North Korean relations, consolidation of Kim Il-sung's political authority, and the looming strains in ROK-US relations were factors that might have emboldened North Korea, possibly for invasion of the South. This was certainly how officials in the ROK government assessed North Korea's intentions. As one study noted, "if there was a time North Korea might hope to invade it was the 1960s, when the United States was preoccupied in Vietnam and South Korea was only beginning its economic miracle and North Korea was closest to South Korea's capabilities" (Kang 2003, 308).

However, conditions in the 1960s were far worse than they seemed. By this time, Pyongyang was no longer the success story of the 1950s, which owed, above all, to the coordinated intrabloc aid program (Armstrong 2013). But all that changed after the fallout with the Soviet Union and China during the 1960s. The adverse impact of the North's heavy allocations of manpower and resources to a military buildup was palpable by 1965, when the KWP leadership started openly acknowledging that "economic development came to be delayed to a certain extent because the situation prevailing in the last two to three years required a concentration of our resources on strengthening our military capability" (Kim 1967, 3). Average annual rate of growth of national income declined from 21 percent during the Five-Year Plan (1956-1960) to 8.1 percent during the Seven-Year Plan (1961-1970) (Chung 1972). The 36.6 percent annual growth rate in industrial output achieved during the Five-Year Plan fell to 12.8 percent during the Seven-Year Plan, and in 1966 industrial output actually declined 3 percent over the preceding year--the first time a decline had happened (Chung 1972). The announcement of the extension of the Seven-Year Plan in the Second Representatives' Conference in October 1966 represented the clearest public admission of the economic dislocation caused by the military buildup program from 1962.

This situation did not go unnoticed by South Korean officials. In fact, as recalled by Kang In-deok, then director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA)'s North Korea Bureau, Seoul assessed its economic progress as having surpassed that of Pyongyang following the normalization of relations with Japan in 1965, and concluded that North Korea's Seven-Year Plan had been a "complete failure" (Ostermann and Person 2011, 87). According to Kang, "we at the KCIA were on top of the North Korean situation at the time in 1966, and we were beginning to feel that we were going to prevail over North Korea in our competition for economic investment" (Ostermann and Person 2011, 87). Such an evaluation suggests caution in overplaying the significance of North Korea's material lead over South Korea in the late 1960s. It also raises, then, the problem of why Pyongyang resorted to risk taking in the face of deteriorating conditions at home.

Frame of Losses: The Fall of Ideological Unity in Relations with Beijing and Moscow

The End of Alignment

Since its official proclamation of war mobilization policies in 1962, Pyongyang had displayed a strong public position of alignment with either Beijing or Moscow (Choi 2008; Chung 1978; Scalapino and Lee 1972; Shimotomai 2011; Szalontai 2005). From the evidence available in Kim Il-sung's own speeches, major KWP editorials in Rodong Sinmun and Kulloja, and assessment of North Korean policy by foreign diplomats in Pyongyang, the official rationale for alignment was based on the order of priority assigned to its allies' anti-US posture (Buzo 1999; Do 2013). Pyongyang maintained that a joint and primary emphasis should be placed exclusively on opposing the United States. The escalation of the Sino-Soviet split, however, made Beijing and Moscow focus as much, if not more, on the antagonism toward each other as on the contradictions with the United States. Theirs was an inevitable contest to prove their ideological correctness in the advancement of Marxism-Leninism.

However, Pyongyang saw this development as fundamentally incompatible with intrabloc solidarity and a deplorable decline of ideological unity in fraternal socialism, for it disinclined both Moscow and Beijing from supporting its militant nationalism. Hence Pyongyang's pro-China alignment (1962-1964) against the Soviet Union, whose leader was thought to be pursuing detente with the United States while escalating the rivalry with China to the point of irreversibility, and then its pro-Soviet alignment (1965-1966) against China, whose increasing focus on anti-Soviet revisionism in the context of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, coupled with the anxiety about a direct military confrontation with the United States in or over Vietnam, provoked the fundamental dissent of the KWP.

This pattern of alignment no longer held after 1967, however, because Pyongyang began to evaluate both Moscow and Beijing as being primarily focused on countering each other rather than jointly opposing the United States. From 1967, the radical anti-Soviet actions of the Chinese Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution effectively rendered Moscow the number one public enemy of the Chinese people (Niu 2005; Radchenko 2009; Van Ness 1972). In contrast, the Cultural Revolution resulted in no significant change in China's relationship with the United States: it remained hostile, though the two sides established "initial trust during confrontation" (Gurtov 2010, 8) in Vietnam as the Chinese Communist Party leadership consistently signaled the intent to avoid war with the United States (Hershberg and Chen 2006; Rogers 1976), and Washington reciprocated by never publicizing the existence of Chinese (noncombat) troops. Moscow began to implement a policy of strategically containing China while removing the Vietnam War as a precondition for detente with Washington. (10) To be sure, little actual change occurred in the policies of Moscow and Beijing toward the United States prior to 1969, and the leaders of China and the Soviet Union themselves continued to believe their actions to be fundamentally revolutionary (Chen 2001; Haslam 2011; Shen and Li 2011; Zubok 2007).

Regardless, the North Koreans discerned evidence of Sino-US and Soviet-US collusion from 1967 to 1968, which prompted them to abandon the previous alignment with either Beijing (1962-1964) or Moscow (1965-1966). Instead, Pyongyang for the first time assumed a position of neutrality based on "balanced hostility" (Scalapino and Lee 1972, 640). This occasioned the ascent of a new North Korean narrative from 1967 that denounced both China and the Soviet Union for making compromises with the United States. This parallel fall of ideological unity in the alliance with both Beijing and Moscow placed North Korea's decisional frame in the domain of losses. To address this problem, North Korea stressed the role of small countries in the revolutionary struggle and launched the most violent phase of its militant strategy from 1967 to 1968 in order to elicit alliance solidarity by emphasizing the threat of the United States as the common enemy.

An Uncompromising New Posture

The balancing of hostility toward the allies and the emphasis on the role of small countries in the revolutionary struggle became dominant features of North Korean policy and theoretical articulation throughout 1967, and became the basis for the thesis that only the KWP policy took the correct position (Person 2009, 33). A prime example was provided in Kim Il-sung's article published on August 12, 1967, titled "Let Us Intensify the Anti-Imperialist, Anti-US Struggle." It read,

It is wrong to try to avoid the struggle against imperialism under the pretext that independence and revolution are important, but that peace is still more precious. Is it not true that the line of seeking unprincipled compromise with imperialism only tends to encourage its aggressive actions and increase the danger of war? ... We are opposed to the line of compromise with imperialism. At the same time, we cannot tolerate the practice of only denouncing imperialism, but in actual fact, being afraid to fight it. That is a line of compromise in an inverted form. Both have nothing to do with a genuine anti-imperialist struggle and only help the imperialist policy of aggression and war. (Kim 1985, 336; emphasis added)

The italicized phraseology refers to the policy of Moscow, which was taking a "line of compromise with imperialism," and to Beijing, which was "denouncing imperialism, but in actual fact, being afraid to fight it." North Korean leaders had already begun to question China's policies toward the international communist movement in the context of the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution from 1965 to 1966. In 1967, Pyongyang advanced that negative public portrayal of China with added frequency and directness. As noted by the Soviet embassy in Pyongyang at the time, Kim Il-sung was "obviously talking about Chinese leaders" in his reference to those "who just talk about being against American imperialism but in fact do not take any specific steps to curb aggression" (Person 2009, 29).

The hardening of North Korea's tone toward Moscow in this passage, however, represented a reversal of the earlier assessment of Moscow from 1965 to 1966 as a "friend who had corrected its mistakes at least on the question of Vietnam" (Kim 1971, 134). Moreover, this reversal occurred despite the increase in Soviet military and economic aid since the inauguration of post-Khrushchev leadership. In restricted propaganda, the North Korean leadership accused the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) of displaying weakness toward the United States, of colluding with the United States to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, of an incorrect attitude "toward Yugoslavia, the reactionary forces of India, and interference in the affairs of fraternal Parties." (11)

In 1967, Pyongyang's notion of the Soviet Union as an unsatisfactory ally was reinforced by disagreement over how to express the extent of the Soviets' defense commitment to North Korea in the joint statement to be issued on the occasion of Kim Il-sung's visit to Moscow in January. The Soviet side thought it was unnecessary to mention Soviet aid, but the North Korean delegation insisted on including it. (12) In February, Moscow rejected North Korea's request for the delivery of a nuclear power plant (Szalontai and Radchenko 2006). Assessing the state of Soviet-North Korean relations, the US State Department concluded that while "it appears that during the past year, North Koreans have drawn somewhat closer to Soviets who in 1967 supplied large amounts of military and economic aid, there remain important ideological differences between Soviets and North Koreans." (13)

The fall of North Korean ideological unity with Beijing and Moscow underscored the imperative to elicit alliance solidarity by emphasizing the danger of the United States as the common enemy. North Korean leaders began to promote the thesis that small countries like itself were more vulnerable to US aggression. Kim Il-sung remarked, "Socialist countries should be duly vigilant over the fact that today the U.S. imperialists, while refraining as far as possible from worsening their relations with big countries, direct the spearhead of aggression mainly against Vietnam and try to swallow up divided or small countries such as Korea, Cuba, East Germany, one by one" (Kim 1971, 136).

The notion that it alone faced the threat of US imperialism (unlike big countries like China and the Soviet Union) supposedly rationalized its forays at the inter-Korean border. According to Kim Il-sung, it was the obligation of small countries to persuade the two big socialist powers to restore their unity and cooperation on the basis of collective action. (14) As noted by the East German ambassador to North Korea, "The DPRK tries to portray the situation as if an attack by the USA is imminent, in order to justify their positions domestically and externally. At the same time the DPRK tries to practice its policy of dealing U.S. imperialism blows from the outside and to convince other socialist countries and leaders of the national freedom movement to adhere to a similar policy." (15)

The Pueblo Incident

By January 1968, North Korea portrayed itself as uniquely committed to anti-US imperialism and tried to encourage Beijing and Moscow to return to the joint and primary struggle against the United States. The most prominent example of this was how the KWP appropriated the USS Pueblo incident, in which a US spy ship and its crew were seized in January 1968, as an act of aggression that called for intrabloc unity and alliance solidarity (Rodong Sinmun 1968). As noted by other analysts, the North Korean reaction was a case of "calculated adventurism" intended to elicit support from China (Choi 2008, 268; Shin 2012). Kim Il-sung "might have appealed to Soviet treaty obligations in order to test Moscow's resolve to defend North Korea in case of an American attack, which Kim did regard as a real possibility." (16) According to the Soviet Embassy in Pyongyang, the North Korean foreign ministry asked whether the USSR would help in case of an all-out war. (17)

As much as Kim Il-sung tried to use the Pueblo case to rally intrabloc solidarity, reactions from Moscow and Beijing fell short of expectations. China issued a statement condemning "U.S. imperialism's crime of aggression" and defending North Korea's "decisive measure of self-defense" (Peking Review 1968). But the statement did not mention anything about what action China might take, except to state ambiguously that "should U.S. imperialism dare to embark on a new adventure, it is bound to taste the bitter fruit of its own making and receive even more severe punishment" (Peking Review 1968). One study noted that the Pueblo incident "did not seem to occasion any increase in the level of hostility toward the United States" (Dillion, Burton, and Soderlund 1977, 463). The US State Department similarly observed, "Developments in 1968 make it clear that Peking and Pyongyang are still at odds, with their differences rooted in disagreement over how to regard the Soviet Union. Pyongyang's tactics of increased subversion and infiltration into South Korea since 1966 have received no encouragement from Peking." (18)

Moscow's commitment to North Korea's defense turned out to be limited as well. Pyongyang's intensified unification propaganda since the Second Representatives' Conference in October 1966 left the Soviet Union deeply apprehensive about the possibility of armed conflict on the Korean peninsula. By June 1967, Soviet First Secretary Zvetkov believed that North Korea's policy would lead to a dead end, and in conjunction with events in the ROK, might result in an armed conflict that would create a dangerous predicament for the Soviet Union (Schaefer 2004, 21). In November, Kim Il-sung compared the tense situation along the DMZ to the months prior to the outbreak of the Korean War, and he declined to attend the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the October Revolution (Schaefer 2004). Instead, he sent his deputy Choe Yong Gon, to whom Leonid Brezhnev stated, "Basically, the Soviet Union does not accept the standpoint of the DPRK with regard to the cause of the tension along the demilitarized zone" (Person 2009, 49). The Soviets "doubted that armed struggle is an appropriate method to reunify Korea" given the "concrete Korean and international conditions of the actual period when choosing the means and methods of the struggle" (Person 2009, 49).

To be sure, Kim Il-sung did obtain additional weapons and economic aid by raising the level of tensions on the Korean peninsula. However, the Soviet leader emphasized the defensive nature of the Soviet-North Korean Treaty of Mutual Friendship, Assistance, and Cooperation in the wake of the Pueblo seizure:

We would like to stress that it has a defensive character and is an instrument of defending the peace-loving position of North Korea.... The problem of military actions is a very difficult question, especially under current circumstances, when the entire world struggles against war. It is impossible to talk about a military situation, much less about some kind of military actions, by means of short letters. This is a very serious question and it demands serious consultation. (Radchenko 2005, 66)

Given the lack of categorical endorsement from China and the Soviet Union, Pyongyang began to harbor "strong misgivings over how much help would be forthcoming from the Soviets and even stronger doubts about Chinese aid, if large-scale hostilities involving US forces were to start in Korea." (19)


Both Moscow and Beijing regarded rapprochement with North Korea as a major foreign policy goal in the late 1960s. But after the Sino-Soviet border clash in 1969, the Nixon Doctrine was set in motion. China and the USSR then assigned equal, if not greater, weight to achieving detente with the United States. (20) For North Koreans, however, this process had already begun in 1967-1968 when it assessed the leaders of both communist countries as being more focused on the antagonism toward each other than on their contradictions with Washington. In the end, Pyongyang's attempt to foster alliance solidarity by taking militant action to demonstrate the danger of a common enemy did not produce the intended results. This failure was, however, not necessarily because the strategy itself was faulty, but because there was nothing North Korea could do about the degree to which the Sino-Soviet split degenerated over the course of the Vietnam War and the Cultural Revolution and how, consequently, ideology was irreparably undermined in fraternal socialism.

The concurrence of North Korean militant strategy and the parallel decline of ideological unity in Sino-North Korean and Soviet-North Korean relations from 1967 to 1968 underscores the relevance of prospect theory in explaining Pyongyang's external risk taking during the Cold War. Rather than rational calculation or a desire for expansion, it was driven by the fear of losing allies in the joint and primary struggle against US imperialism. Since the late 1960s, North Korea had harbored much deeper antagonism toward the United States than Moscow and Beijing, both of which progressively came around to the idea of competing with Washington without confrontation. Due to their increasing ambiguousness toward North Korea's revolutionary militancy, a frame of losses became pronounced in Pyongyang's national security outlook for the first time from 1967 to 1968. This was, of course, nothing like the situation in the early 1990s when both Moscow and Beijing normalized diplomatic relations with Seoul. Nonetheless, the problem of credibility started to become apparent in North Korea's assessment of both Chinese and Soviet commitment due to the changing order of priority assigned to anti-US imperialism.

The years from 1967 to 1968 may therefore be considered an underrecognized turning point in North Korea's conception of hostile encirclement. From that time on, the notion that it alone is constantly threatened by the United States, unlike China and the Soviet Union, who "refrained from worsening relations" with Washington, has prevailed in North Korean policy and theoretical articulation (Kwon and Chung 2012, 17). There is extraordinary continuity between this assessment in the 1960s and Kim Jong-il's post-1990s statements about North Korea confronting the United States alone (Kwon and Chung 2012, 17). The frame of losses emanating from this irreparable fall of ideological unity in Sino-North Korean and Soviet-North Korean relations placed Pyongyang on a singular path toward military self-reliance and unmitigated anti-US hostility. As such, loss aversion and risk taking in North Korean external behavior is not necessarily a post-1990s development; they are rather a manifestation of the frame of losses that had its origins in the late 1960s.

This frame of losses has prevented North Korea from continuing to focus on a pragmatic course of economic construction, as it had done during much of the 1950s. Instead, a historically defined fear of confronting the United States alone, particularly since 1967-1968, has produced highly ideological and militant tendencies transcending three generations of hereditary leadership succession. The long-standing pattern of loss aversion and risk taking will likely continue to characterize North Korean external behavior as long as the leadership in Pyongyang believes its security concerns remain unaddressed.


Jein Do is a historian currently affiliated with the Institute of Social Sciences at Sogang University as a postdoctoral fellow. Her research focuses on North Korean diplomatic and social history, inter-Korean relations, and Cold War history. Her publications have appeared in Korea Journal, Seoul Journal of Korean Studies, Korean Journal of International Studies, Sino-Soviet Affairs, and Review of North Korean Studies. She can be reached at

(1.) Berejikian's example to explain the essential logic of loss aversion in a gains frame and loss acceptance in a losses frame is as follows. In a gains frame, most people would choose a sure gain of $80 rather than a risky gain with an 85 percent chance of winning $100 and a 15 percent chance of winning nothing. In a losses frame, people would prefer a risky venture with an 85 percent chance of losing $100 and a 15 percent chance of losing nothing rather than a sure loss of $80.

(2.) The motivations behind the militant strategy of this period have been addressed elsewhere. They can be broken down into two major strands, one that focuses on domestic factors, the other on external factors. Most scholars agree that the militant North Korean strategy of this period was essentially a function of domestic politics and revolutionary nationalism (Buzo 1999; Koh 1969; Lerner 2010; Ostermann and Person 2011; Scalapino and Lee 1972; Shimotomai 2011; Suh 1988). Ostensibly, the belligerency of this time resulted from Kim Il-sung's desire to achieve unification by overthrowing the regime in Seoul; more immediately, it involved a leadership succession struggle between Kim Yong-ju (Kim Il-sung's brother) and his rivals who sought success in military adventures in order to undermine his position (Lim 2009). Scholars have also stressed that Pyongyang used these provocations to distract the people from economic mismanagement and mobilize them to support a continued military buildup (Lerner 2012). The emphasis on external factors focuses on North Korea's alliance relations with Moscow and Beijing, and its identification of a unique revolutionary role in the international communist movement. Some writers have suggested that the KWP hierarchy had restoration of relations with China in mind (Choi 2008; Schaefer 2004; Shin 2012). Others have pointed to the intent to secure further military aid from Moscow (Chung 1978; Radchenko 2005). My study seeks to identify how a frame of losses informed North Korean militant strategy at this time, rather than trying to prove or disprove the relevance of one motivation over the other.

(3.) Document 200, "The Likelihood of Major Hostilities in Korea," May 16, 1968, FRUS, 1964-1968, Volume XXIX, Part 1, Korea,

(4.) Document 80, "Telegram from the Embassy in Korea to the White House," February 23, 1966, FRUS, 1964-1968, Volume XXIX, Part 1, Korea,

(5.) Korean Situation Report, Department of State Korean Task Force Situation Report, Embassy to State: News Reports, Confidential US State Department Central Foreign Policy Files: Korea, 1967-1969, RG 59.

(6.) Press Conference Regarding DMZ Incidents, Political Affairs and Relations: Truce, Cease-Fire, Armistice, 1966, US Embassy in Seoul, Confidential US State Department Central Foreign Policy Files: Korea, 1964-1966, RG 59.

(7.) Final Vance meeting with President Park, Confidential US State Department Central Foreign Policy Files: Korea, 1967-1969, RG 59.

(8.) Document 130, "North Korean Intentions and Capabilities with Respect to South Korea," September 21, 1967, FRUS, 1964-1968, Volume XXIX, Part 1, Korea,

(9.) Incidents Occurring Along DMZ Involving Casualties, Political Affairs and Relations: Truce, Cease-Fire, Armistice, 1966, US Embassy in Seoul, Confidential US State Department Central Foreign Policy Files: Korea, 1964-1966, RG 59.

(10.) Document 181, "Memorandum from the Ambassador-at-Large (Thompson) to Secretary of State Rusk," October 14, 1966, FRUS, 1964-1968, Volume XIV, Soviet Union,

(11.) "The DPRK Attitude Toward the So-Called 'Cultural Revolution' in China," March 7, 1967, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, AVPRF, pp. 13-23,

(12.) "On Some Issues of Soviet-Korean Relations," June 2, 1967, State Central Archive (Prague), File A, Novotny, foreign affairs, KPDR. Sign., 82 b. 8, p. 6,

(13.) North Korean Orientation, Political Affairs and Relations: Diplomatic and Consular Representation Between North Korea and USSR, 1967-1969, US Embassy in Moscow, Confidential US State Department Central Foreign Policy Files: Korea, 1967-1969, RG 59.

(14.) "Report, Embassy of Hungary in North Korea to the Hungarian Foreign Ministry," March 9, 1967, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, MOL, XIX-J-1-j Korea, 1967, 61. doboz, 1, 002130/1967,

(15.) "Letter from Ambassador Brie of the GDR in the DPRK to Deputy MFA Hegen," December 8, 1967, MfAA, G-A 320,

(16.) "Excerpt from Leonid Brezhnev's Speech at the April (1968) CC CPSU Plenum," on the Current Problems of the International Situation and on the Struggle of the CPSU for the Unity of the International Communist Movement, April 9, 1968, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Russian State Archive of Recent History (RGANI), fond 2, opis 3, delo 95, listy 50-58,

(17.) "Telegram from Pyongyang to Bucharest, No. 76.017, Flash" January 25, 1968, History and Public Policy Program Digital Archive, Political Affairs Fond, Telegrams from Pyongyang, TOP SECRET, 1968, Archive of the Romanian Ministry of Foreign Affairs,

(18.) US Department of State, Director of Intelligence and Research Political Affairs and Relations: Diplomatic and Consular Representation Between North Korea and USSR, 1967-1969, US Embassy in Moscow, Confidential US State Department Central Foreign Policy Files: Korea, 1967-1969, RG 59.

(19.) US Department of State Director of Intelligence and Research (Research Memorandum) Political Affairs and Relations: Diplomatic and Consular Representation Between North Korea and USSR, 1967-1969, US Embassy in Moscow, Confidential US State Department Central Foreign Policy Files: Korea, 1967-1969, RG 59.

(20.) Political Affairs and Relations: Diplomatic and Consular Representation Between North Korea and USSR, 1967-1969, American Embassy in Moscow, Confidential US State Department Central Foreign Policy Files: Korea, 1967-1969, RG 59.


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Author:Do, Jein
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Geographic Code:9NORT
Date:Jul 1, 2016
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