What the West misreads about Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions
North Korea watchers confidently announce in endless media appearances and on myriad op-ed pages that Kim Jong-un’s relentless nuclear and missile tests are all about ensuring survival of his regime. Declaring that the North Korean regime seeks to survive is fundamentally true, but it is also unhelpfully axiomatic.
Tyrannies will, of course, do all they can to cling to power, as surely as a cockroach will scurry for cover at the flick of the light switch. Proffering a banal truism as some kind of unifying insight into Pyongyang’s thinking, however, does not move the needle in terms of trying to grasp fully the nuances of North Korea’s nuclear motivations.
In fact, we shortchange North Korea’s oft-professed ideological aspirations – to our strategic detriment, if survival is all we ascribe as a motivation for its nuclear ambitions.
Kim Jong-un’s propagandists have been only too willing regularly to provide the West a nuclear justification tailor-made to its native presumptions (that is, wishful thinking) about the behavior of rational nation-states. Subscribing to these presumptions becomes irresistible if only for the fact that it absolves us from contemplating the possibility that Pyongyang may have other more diabolical designs for its nuclear arsenal beyond mere classical deterrence.
People at a railway station in Seoul watch a screen showing a graphic of a North Korean missile launch on September 15, 2017.
Blind adherence to this survival/deterrence narrative also instills a false comfort that the nuclear dynamics between the United States and North Korea can be effectively managed and the status quo in East Asia maintained.
North Korea’s propaganda organs regularly trumpet – and Western media glibly echo – the lessons supposedly drawn from the demise of Iraq and Libya, two regimes de-fanged of their nuclear programs only to be later violently toppled. Never mind all the reasons that suggest Iraq and Libya are pretextual smokescreens thrown up to get heads nodding in unison at the facile appeal of the comparison, starting with the concentrated retaliatory proximity to treaty allies North Korea has enjoyed for decades and which has kept US and South Korean forces at bay – a deterrence reality, we can be certain, Pyongyang had long ago figured out.
So the question asked, but never answered, is why Pyongyang would spend its precious resources, descend to pariah-nation status, and risk the very attack or invasion it says it fears merely to supplement a deterrence bulwark it already enjoyed and has repeatedly exploited.
Still, the logic of the Iraq/Libya line of argument is immensely attractive to all of us who seek to infer a benign – or at least understandable – reason behind North Korea’s outlaw pursuit of nuclear power. If all Kim Jong-un desires is attainment of nuclear parity with his existential enemy to foreclose any possibility of a US attack or invasion, then shifting the US policy posture toward North Korea to a neo-Cold War framework of mutually assured destruction (MAD) would seem to offer an off-ramp to a de facto détente on the Korean Peninsula and breathing room for possible future engagement.
The danger in such thinking is that it misperceives North Korea as an ideologically rudderless state whose leadership merely desires to maintain the mafia apparatus it has erected to plunder the resources of the country and leverage the illicit networks by which it keeps its elites sated and subservient. Yet anyone who delves beneath the crashing waves of North Korea’s incessant propaganda bluster about “invasion”, “self-defense” and resisting US “hostile policy” will detect a consistent thematic undercurrent tied to the eventual reunification of the peninsula and consolidation of the minjok (the Korean race) under Pyongyang’s protection and suzerainty.
‘Korea is One’ reunification billboard in the Demilitarized Zone in Panmunjom, North Korea.
How then does North Korea’s heedless quest for nuclear weapons (and the means to deliver them as far as the US homeland) figure into this reunification storyline? The answer to that question was provided by North Korea itself as recently as June 19 in a commentary appearing in one of its state media portals:
The current South Korean government has no need to fear or feel unnecessary repulsion about our nuclear weapon. It is a means for securing peaceful unification and the survival of the race (minjok).
What the statement loses in terms of the flamboyant bellicosity Pyongyang normally infuses into its editorials it gains in the ominousness of what it portends. It is akin to a quack doctor telling his patient, “Stay still, and this won’t hurt a bit.”
The statement does go on to characterize the North’s “self-defensive nuclear deterrence built to counter the US’s threat of invasion”. Herein lies, however, a conceptual contradiction of purpose. How does a nuclear arsenal advertised as purely for self-defense square with the notion of it being “a means for securing peaceful unification and the survival of the race”? As they say, one of these is not like the other, and both reasons cannot be true.
Even a cursory study of decades of North Korean propaganda and, most important, behavior reveals that, given the fact that a US invasion hasn’t happened in 64 years, the regime itself clearly does not buy what it sells to its people and the world. Preparing to repel a US invasion, however, remains the sine qua non of Pyongyang’s claim to legitimacy; therefore, the regime has no choice but to follow the propaganda plot.
Analysts who proudly wear deterrence theory like a bespoke suit squirm in discomfort at the thought that North Korea may be vying for more than just de facto membership in the international club of nuclear states. The difficulty lies in their inability to overlay their presumptions about North Korean behavior neatly on to the idea that the real purpose of the country’s nuclear weapons may be gradually to coerce – via low-grade incremental, serial provocations and incursions – US and South Korean acquiescence to its scheme to rend the US-ROK alliance, erase the American military footprint on the peninsula, and slowly drain South Korea of its sovereignty and political freedoms within the framework of a confederation.
With the threat overhang of nuclear retaliation, the new refrain in the US-North Korea confrontation lexicon would be: Seattle or Seoul. So, yes, North Korea seeks nuclear deterrence, but it is deterrence of an offensive, rather than defensive, nature.
Anyone who dismisses this possibility as just the fever-dream of the flat-Earth contingent in the North Korea analyst community does not really care to know what North Korea is all about. They also apparently ignore the litany of outrageous provocations – and concomitant US and South Korea passivity – of which Pyongyang has proved itself quite capable of perpetrating since the Korean War, a war, by the way, that North Korea started with its invasion of the South.
The perennial disconnect between the United States’ North Korea policy and the reality of North Korean goals squarely rests on the fact that, while we take North Korea’s nuclear ambitions seriously, we refuse to take the North Korean state itself seriously. Yet North Korea’s gambit for reunification under its terms has been a tent pole of its ideological edifice, a pillar of its propaganda project, and the unrequited dream of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung, a dream that clearly has been passed down to his grandson Kim Jong-un.
In 2012, North Korea revised the Preamble of its constitution to declare itself a “nuclear-armed state”. That same Preamble mentions the word “reunification” no fewer than six times, describing it as the nation’s “supreme national task”. North Korean propaganda is saturated with the iconography of reunification. From its literature, to its posters, to its Arch of Reunification, to its policy charters such as the “Ten Point Program for Reunification of the Country” (a document that pays lip service to North-South equities, but is really an insidious blueprint for achieving South Korean subjugation), reunification is North Korea’s lodestar and manifest destiny.
A statue symbolizing a united Korea is seen on the highway to Kaesong in Pyongyang, North Korea.
This is the ideological imperative of the North Korean state the Western policy consensus continues to discount to its detriment. And the consequences of our biased contempt for our foe cannot be overstated.
If we do not even know – or perhaps worse, dismiss – what animates our enemy, there is no hope that our tactics and strategies can ever effectively respond to, and counter, the real threat North Korea poses to our allies and our interests in East Asia.
Recently, H R McMaster, US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, publicly stated his opinion that North Korea could not be deterred, given, among other concerns, the regime’s barbarity and instability. His conclusion is right, but his reasons are misplaced. After all, as discussed earlier, tyrants will seek to survive, even uniquely brutal ones.
The true reason North Korea cannot be deterred is that it sees itself at an inflection point in its history where its perfected nuclear arsenal will provide the ultimate coercive lever to realize its One Korea dreams.
Children stand before an image of a unified Korean Peninsula as they perform a variety dance and music show during an organized tour for visiting foreign journalists on the outskirts of Pyongyang in April.
Moreover, in the current South Korean government, as led by inter-Korean engagement and confederation champion President Moon Jae-in, North Korea sees, if not a comrade-in-arms, an accomplice of the heart. Pyongyang’s persistent passive-aggressive appeals to race-solidarity (a sentiment with enormous emotional resonance in the South) and calls for the “vassal” South to break its bonds of servility to the US show that it knows where the pressures points of the US-ROK alliance are.
When North Korea amended its constitution in 2012, it was renamed the Kim Il-sung-Kim Jong-il Constitution. The reason is that the new constitution’s Preamble – in many respects, the North’s ideological source code – was updated to reflect a hagiographic celebration, not just of Kim 1.0, but now also Kim 2.0. It reverently elevates the achievements of the father in founding the country and the accomplishments of the son in setting it on its Songun (military-first) path as an independent nuclear power. The final chapter on reunification, however, remains unwritten.
Kim Jong-un, as the family’s third-generation torchbearer, now sees himself poised to be the Kim who will achieve “the final victory” of America’s defeat and Korea’s reunification, and he seems intent on using a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile to write the last glorious chapter of this dynasty’s legend himself.