Kim Jong Un can’t stop his nuclear program without threatening the national ideology that keeps him in power.
Another missile test, another step forward for North Korea’s ambition to successfully deliver a nuclear weapon, another round of hand-wringing, anger, and editorials globally. It’s all become rather familiar — as have the solutions proposed, from lunatic first strikes to final ultimatums to careful programs of engagement.
But we have to face an uncomfortable truth: There is no negotiating stance that can convince the North to abandon its nuclear program. North Korea’s ideology, Kim Jong Un’s own sense of familial destiny, and the sheer amounts of money and time spent on the project all work to ensure this. And, as 19th-century Americans said about their own conviction that their “manifest destiny” was to dominate the continent, the North sees possessing a deliverable weapon as both justified and inevitable.
It doesn’t matter what any outsiders propose. It is now essentially a done deal. Any military response is doomed to fail. But even engagement strategies can’t stop the relentless move toward a deliverable North Korea nuclear arsenal.
Lessening the sanctions regime, or perhaps even abolishing it, would make little difference to Pyongyang. The economy is humming along OK, and trade with China is continuing. Additionally, various illegal sources of money, from meth to gold to weapons tech, are virtually impossible to stop. Predictions of the North’s economic collapse have been many and constant — but there is no actual reason the current level of austerity and some black market dealing cannot sustain the population indefinitely.
Pursuing a “buyout” strategy, whereby Washington buys the North’s nukes and an agreement to end the program, is equally problematic. President Bill Clinton essentially attempted this in 1994 when he approved $4 billion in “energy aid” to North Korea. The money would be filtered into the North over a decade, primarily via the now mostly forgotten Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, in return for Pyongyang freezing and then dismantling its nuclear program. The idea was to divert the North’s nuclear program into civilian use. But the regime lied, took the money, and used it to carry on developing the weapons program.
The reality of the dictatorship is why the reasonableness argument is not a strategy. It would be reasonable to calm tensions; it would be reasonable to take aid in return for de-escalation. But the North is not reasonable — at least not in the terms we understand. It wishes to have a nuclear arsenal, pure and simple.
Why is getting the bomb so crucial? Because it’s the latest big promise that the Kim clan has made to the North Korean people. And that’s core to the notion of the Kims’ supreme leadership. The leader doesn’t make mistakes; problems are never the fault of the leadership; the theories of the leader are entirely correct; and the leadership always delivers on its big promises. In some ways, that last one — the only tenet to have a faint connection to reality — props up the propaganda about the first three.
The leadership successfully delivered on all the big promises of the past — albeit at a gruesome cost in life.
The leadership successfully delivered on all the big promises of the past — albeit at a gruesome cost in life. Kim Il Sung led the liberation struggle and built the nation into a fortress to withstand attack. Kim Jong Il took the nation through the famine of the mid-1990s and then successfully navigated the “Arduous March,” after the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc collapsed, to a point where the North remained independent and was able to restart its nuclear program.
Of course, all these big promises are fraught with problems. Kim Il Sung was really a proxy for the liberation of the northern portion of Korea by the Soviets, who then propped him up while he destroyed the economy though the imposition of Stalinist command economics and agricultural collectivization. Kim Jong Il took over during a famine engendered by his father’s disastrous policies and later, in 2002, failed completely to rejuvenate the economy with his own cockeyed reform process. Kim Jong Un will probably eventually attain a fully deliverable intercontinental ballistic missile as promised, but will he then switch to the economy?
He has intimated that he might, as laid out in the central plank of his own addition to his grandfather’s Juche theory of self-reliance. Byungjin (“parallel development”) is described as a “new strategic line on carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously” — i.e., an attempt to restart North Korea’s stalled economy and raise living standards while continuing to develop a nuclear arsenal. A nuke in every silo, and then a chicken in every pot.
Kim Jong Un’s developing cult of personality seems to be based more on the legacies and style of his grandfather than his father — he speaks to the people, smiles a lot, interacts with them to a greater degree than Kim Jong Il ever did. But he also stresses, as did Kim Il Sung did very strongly, that deterrence and the protection of a nuclear arsenal are necessary. Kim Jong Un has regularly referred to the lessons of the Balkans (meaning the civil war in the former Yugoslavia) and the Middle East.
When Kim Jong Un outlines Byungjin (which he did first in March 2013), he constantly refers to his grandfather, repeatedly citing his 1962 revolutionary slogan: “A gun in one hand and a hammer and sickle in the other!” This echoing is not accidental; it repeatedly tells the North Korean people (and any possible dissident forces within the ruling Workers’ Party) that he is a modern reincarnation of his grandfather — a nation builder, a guarantor of national defense.
It is of course possible that Kim Jong Un is not serious about the second half of Byungjin, the economic portion. Instead of using his nuclear security and unchallenged position domestically to turn his full attention to economic reconstruction, he may simply demand more toys: more nukes, chemical and biological weapons, even better cyberwarfare capabilities.
But economic promises can always be brushed under the carpet or blamed on malevolent outside forces. The failure to produce a nuclear weapon — or, even worse, a humiliating climbdown under pressure — is a lot less excusable. Personally, no doubt Kim feels the weight of his father and grandfather on his shoulders. Politically, backing away from nuclear weapons could undermine the foundations of the dynasty’s own mythology — the great protectors of the North Korean people. If this Arduous March to achieve the Juche ideals of self-sufficiency and self-defense is suddenly bargained away after a generation of seeking nuclear defense, then the population may begin to ask some hard questions.
No amount of pressure can realistically force Kim to back off his nuclear destiny, then. But if the world accepts a nuclear North Korea (and it accepted a nuclear Pakistan, as North Koreans have reminded me), then the second half of Kim’s theory might just give the kind of pressure that can be used. You want to rebuild the economy, with U.S., Japanese, and South Korean assistance? Then you’ve got to get back into the system — into the International Atomic Energy Agency, the Nonproliferation Treaty, and back to engaging with the world again.
Of course, Kim might shy away from any economic-centered engagement — his father will have taught him that “if you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in,” as Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping put it. But right now the economy is dependent on China and illegal money flows “to get things done,” and, as defector testimonies now indicate, rampant and fast-spreading corruption infects every level of the country. There will be some tough choices for Kim, but he’ll have his nukes — and perhaps then the political space to give his people some appliances of their own.