Statues of former North Korean leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il standing on Mansu Hill in Pyongyang, North Korea
The United States’ perception of North Korea has been historically shaped by distrust, outrage, and even fear. Statesmen and citizens alike have condemned supreme leader Kim Jong-un’s quasi-communist, authoritarian regime as being unnecessarily militarized, a nuclear threat to the rest of the world, and a perpetrator of egregious human rights violations. Even though some of these criticisms can be attributed to mere political rhetoric, many of the historic and recent actions of North Korea have, unfortunately, validated this perception.
On the human rights front, a 2014 United Nations Commission of Inquiry found that the abuses in North Korea were the worst in the world. On the military front, North Korea has conducted multiple nuclear missile tests within the past few years and recently organized a massive army parade as a demonstration against the United States on October 10th. Subsequently, with all eyes and ears on this isolated kingdom, a common question arises: What explains North Korea’s seemingly irrational behavior?
In answering this question, the United States’ perception fails in several ways. While distrust, outrage, and fear may all motivate timely responses to threats, they over-complicate attempts to understand North Korea. The CIA currently portrays the country as, “demonizing the US as the ultimate threat to its social system through state-funded propaganda” while also “molding political, economic, and military policies around the core ideological objective of eventual unification of Korea under Pyongyang’s control.” Similarly, in 2002, the United States named North Korea as part of the “axis of evil” and initiated a decade-long diplomatic and military tug-of-war. However, all of these descriptions fail to account for a much simpler reality: the vital national interest of North Korea is the survival of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un’s regime, and all of the policies adopted by the nation can be reasonably traced back to this particular interest.
North Korea’s foreign policy, the most important element of which is its nuclear weapons program, demonstrates the primacy of this interest. Because North Korea is a small, isolated nation operating in the neighborhood of powerful economic, political, and conventional military forces such as China, Russia, South Korea, Japan, and even the United States, it sees nuclear arms as a great equalizer in the effort to deter threats that would otherwise far outmatch its capabilities. For example, while North Korea’s conventional army may not be able to fight toe-to-toe with and defend against a United States-backed coalition of South Korean and Japanese armed forces, a surgical nuclear strike against Seoul and Tokyo would cause immense damage — the threat of which serves as an effective deterrent. Furthermore, North Korea’s nuclear program is also an effective bargaining chip, as many countries fear either the threat of a nuclear strike or a more insidious spread of nuclear arms through accidental or government sponsored proliferation. Subsequently, as evidenced by China’s aid policy and South Korea’s de-escalation of bilateral tensions, the North Korean government receives many political and economic concessions in exchange for a temporary diminution of its nuclear program. Therefore, at least in the eyes of Kim Jong-Un, the North Korean nuclear program is a key factor in his regime’s continued survival.
The centrality of North Korea’s nuclear program also helps explain the remainder of the nation’s militarization through conventional means and its purposeful antagonism toward the United States. This state of mutual nuclear deterrence between the United States and North Korea invokes the concept of the stability-instability paradox, the phenomenon of increased small-scale conflicts that occur in a state of stable deterrence due to the lack of a threat of further isolation. North Korea, being as isolated as a state can be, has taken advantage of the stability-instability paradox by using conventional military action to influence foreign policies that would affect its survival. The Asia-Pacific Issues journal recently detailed this tactic:
“Provocations increased in frequency and intensity following the inauguration of conservative [South Korean] president Lee Myung Bak in 2008 and the collapse of the Six Party Talks later in that year. The North sought to demonstrate that South Korea’s reversal of the Sunshine Policy (and the aid that went with it) was doomed to failure.”
These provocations, from the escalation of missile tests to an increase in military exercises as well as the sinking of the South Korean destroyer Cheonan, are all means for North Korea to influence changes in other countries’ policies while still operating under a safety net of deterrence. When taking this source of motivation into account, Kim Jong-Un’s cost-benefit analysis heavily favors militarization because it generates concrete benefits for his country while avoiding an actual existential threat against his regime.
Lastly, North Korea’s controversial human rights policy can also be directly linked to Kim Jong-un’s focus on regime survival. Because any internal unrest or revolution would pose an immediate threat to this imperative, it is in the dictator’s best interest to quickly quell subversion in all of its forms. Through fear of severe punishment and omnipresent government propaganda, Kim Jong-Un can effectively keep the regime alive, even at his people’s expense.
Currently, the United States government can choose to pursue many different policy approaches. However, regardless of the approach that the United States chooses, it is most important for both statesmen and the general public to thoroughly understand North Korea’s perspective, its singular desire for regime survival, and its current strategy under the stability-instability paradox.