The recent drama of heightened rhetoric appears much more logical when we look at a history of incidents with North Korea. The nation started its nuclear program four decades ago and has conducted a total of 14 missile launches and tests within a decade, each followed by renewed UN sanctions and regional talks with China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the US. The successful talks were marked by an agreement for foreign aid to North Korea in exchange for denuclearization promises.
However, as of today, North Korea has continued to develop nuclear capacities and has filled international headlines every few days with nuclear test announcements or military threats. With this routine pattern in mind, it is crazy that the world is always eager to pronounce North Korea’s staged dramas as “crises.” The increased publicity only gives more attention and submission to North Korea’s demands.
The intent of such theatrical acts is twofold. North Korea, having removed its domestic opposition (i.e. the bourgeoisie,) has one major security threat: the leadership succession that occurred last year. Thus, the most important aspect of issuing military threats is to shore up support among the military in times of domestic uncertainty. From 2009 to the present day – before and after the succession of Kim Jung-Un – North Korea has thrown an unprecedented amount of tantrums, including repeated missile launches in 2009, a ship-sinking in 2010, an island-shelling in 2011, a “satellite”-launching in 2012 and threat of a “preemptive strike” in March of this year.
Another key purpose of threats from North Korea is bargaining for foreign aid. An article from The Belfast Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government from 2010 titled “Keeping Kim: How North Korea’s Regime Stays in Power” argues that the regime “manipulates foreign governments to generate the hard currency needed to buy off elites and sustain his military.” Pyongyang has extracted $6 billion in aid with its promises of denuclearization, in addition to enormous food aids and revenues from the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
This illustrates North Korea’s infallible strategy of “Keeping Kim” for its convenience as well as lack its of consequences. On the one hand, North Korea has no reason to keeps its promise of denuclearization. Instead, it needs to keep the program going for its own security and its use as a bargaining chip to obtain billion-dollar aid that it urgently needs. On the other hand, there are no effectual consequences for its controversial actions and empty promises. The most effective options on the table for the international community are freezing North Korean assets overseas and putting an embargo on luxury goods. Ironically, for their effectiveness, these measures could result in the collapse of the regime and a subsequent refugee crisis. Neither South Korea or China particularly want an influx of 24 million starving people; nor does China want to lose its strategic ally to the US. More disturbingly, North Korea knows this better than anyone else. This is why the authors of the Belfast Center article describe Kim Jung-Il as a “shrewd leader” and a “strategic player.”
One might argue that the Obama administration and the new South Korean President Park Geun-hye have refused to continue this game with North Korea, and if so, the argument of the nation’s actions for the sake of aid no longer applies. Recent developments within North Korea shed much light on this issue. Since the 1990s, the end of the Cold War and Soviet assistance brought North Korea’s economic system to a grinding halt.
To avoid a total economic collapse, the regime allowed some private markets and some private plots, thus giving birth to a fledgling merchant stratum that exists outside the central power. That is to say, the domestic opposition that the regime removed decades ago has revived due to pressure of global capitalism. As a remedy to this, North Korea uses the threat of imminent war to pull its subjects back into loyalty and submission.
Whatever the reason, North Korea still runs its old script, and the international community continues to buy it. To the delight of Kim Jung-Il, his tantrum has further played off China and the US. In early April, a supposedly scared US made a move to “rebalance toward the Pacific” by deploying strategic bombers in Guam, South Korea, the Philippines and Japan, capable of containing both North Korea and China. To China, this is a clear sign of increased containment and has created tremendous tension between the two states.
If anything is reassuring, it is that North Korea will never develop a deployable nuclear arsenal in its current state, and thus won’t start launching any nuclear weapons arbitrarily. As already discussed above, a full nuclear arsenal would not only present North Korea as a irreversible threat but also strip it of its only bargaining chip for hard cash it desperately needs.
Nobody can predict the future, and many who prophesized a downfall of the North Korean regime in the 1990s were laughably wrong. However as much as North Korea tries to stabilize its population, it is a weak and dependent state resisting increasing pressure of global capitalism and democratic nations. China had succumbed to the market in the late 1970s and the Soviet Union followed suit. Even with North Korea’s recent initiative to learn from China’s transformation toward a Singaporean authoritarian capitalism, it is hard to say if North Korea is the next on the list for “regime change.” One thing we can do, however, is to treat North Korea as a serious state while keep its dramas domestic.
—Phil Chen ‘16 is a student at Vassar College.