Why we should take more seriously what North Korea tells its own people
When the North Koreans test another nuclear device or launch another missile, the question I am most often asked is, “Why now?” Why February and not May, in other words; why 2016 and not 2017? Rather than grasping these events as stations in a linear project, one being carried out as fast as technology and weather conditions will allow, the world regards them as isolated demands for attention, each timed for maximum impact.
The point of these presumed publicity stunts, according to an increasingly insecure consensus, is to force America to talk with the North Koreans on their own terms. Just how much — if anything — they would then be ready to give up is a matter of dispute. And the grand prize they are after? In roughly chronological order since the 1990s, we have attributed to them an obsession with: a self-reliant energy supply, a massive aid package, the normalization of relations with Washington, and formal acknowledgment of the right to a nuclear deterrent.
In 2012, however, Kim Jong Un broke a new aid agreement with the U.S. within weeks, which made his lack of interest in trust-building obvious even to most soft-liners. Since then ever more credence has been given to the notion that the North’s “provocations” are aimed mainly at shoring up domestic support. Yet the rather slow-moving propaganda apparatus had hardly begun exploiting the H-bomb test when the missile was launched. Some American observers have therefore begun to claim, as Katherine H.S. Moon of the Brookings Institute did a few days ago, that the DPRK “seems to want nukes for the sake of nukes.”
The general tendency since 1990 has been towards ever-greater trivialization of the North Koreans’ motives
In short, the general tendency since 1990 has been towards ever-greater trivialization of the North Koreans’ motives. The more they develop their nuclear program, the less we think they want to gain from it.
As a result any serious South Korean show of opposition, like President Park’s closure of the Kaesong Industrial Zone, is treated as a rash over-reaction. Presumably she should have kept the place open in case Kim Jong Un ever wanted to communicate through that channel, and none other. The assertion that the KIZ was undermining the Kim Jong Un regime is no more valid than the failed-communist-state model of the country from which it derives. I can’t help noticing how often North Korea invites the very Pyongyang watchers who call in public for this kind of subversion.
Kingsley Amis once asked a don to tell him the most important lesson he had learned at Oxford. The answer: “Never be afraid of the obvious.” So let me point out that none of the goals commonly imputed to the regime would remove the main threat to its long-term survival, which, as Siegfried Hecker recognized years ago, is internal in nature. The North Korean people’s ardor for the personality cult and their participation in political ritual would continue diminishing even if the U.S. acknowledged the North’s nuclear deterrent or agreed to lift sanctions. Any permanent relaxation of tension with the outside world, no matter how heroically it might be effected, would ultimately undermine Kim Jong Un’s hold on power.
He behaves accordingly. As the Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel put it last month, “We have extended our hand, but North Korea will not unclench its fist.” Some apologists attribute this implacability to NATO’s attack on denuclearized Libya, as if the North Koreans were such nice fellows before that happened. But the nuclear program has already progressed far beyond the stage needed to keep the enemy at bay. The regime hardly needs long-range missiles, or any more nuclear capability than it acquired years ago, to keep using Seoul as the world’s largest human shield.
Any permanent relaxation of tension with the outside world, no matter how heroically it might be effected, would ultimately undermine Kim Jong Un’s hold on power
Isn’t it time, then, that we paid more attention to the DPRK’s own declarations of its intentions? Reiterated in Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s address, and featured in garish new wall posters, the slogan of “autonomous unification” seems harmless to most outsiders, as the regime knows only too well. To the North Koreans themselves, it has always stood for the conquest or subjugation of South Korea after nullification or removal of the U.S. military presence.
“Final victory,” which means the same thing, is another slogan that has taken on special urgency in the past decade, particularly in the domestic-only propaganda that the regime keeps offline. According to South Korean intelligence, which has been right about so much in the past few years, Kim Jong Un has been vocally raising the military’s hopes for “final victory” in the very near future. Like his predecessors before him, he appears sure that the removal of the rival state is the only long-term solution to the regime’s security problem.
“Final victory” …is another slogan that has taken on special urgency in the past decade
The West shrugs off such talk under the assumption that such a goal would require North Korea’s defeat of the U.S. in an all-out war, something Kim must indeed know is out of the question. But there is a very real possibility that the regime will someday seek to trade in its nuclear program for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the peninsula. The dictator has good reason to hope that the South Korean public would assent to such a grand bargain rather than risk another war.
If people in the West find this scenario almost as ludicrously improbable as the other one, it is because they have always overestimated South Koreans’ loyalty to their own republic and their hostility to the North. For a long time I made this mistake myself. In 2009 I was sure the DPRK would soon push Seoul and Washington too far, resulting in a punishing retaliation that would start a process of regime collapse.
I was right about the increase in North Korean belligerence, wrong about everything else. Had anyone told me that the Kim Jong Il regime would be able to torpedo a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors, and then bombard Yeonpyeong Island, killing 4, without suffering any serious retaliation from the Lee Myung Bak administration, I would not have believed it. My mistake lay in not realizing that moderate South Korean conservatives do not identify much more strongly with their republic than the left-wing does. They too, being pan-Korean nationalists at heart, will get angrier about Japanese claims to Dokdo than about their blood-brothers’ attack on an actual, populated island.
This is hard to understand without knowing the warts-and-all history of the South Korean protest movement, to which even many of today’s ruling party members belonged in their youth. Alas, this remains a taboo topic in Korean Studies. In the West, researching it would bring one into conflict with the dominant academic orthodoxy, according to which the military dictators’ allegations of North Korean subversion of the opposition were almost wholly false.
There is a wider range of opinion in the ROK, but it would be a brave historian indeed who would discuss the North’s infiltration of certain parties, unions and church groups. A few veterans of the protest movement who are now in the so-called New Right have told me they fear the social repercussions of speaking out. The very least they could expect would be a libel suit.
Of course, the subject matter carries with it inherent difficulties. It is hard to draw attention to the opposition’s pro-North record — and to many intellectuals’ continued denial of the legitimacy of the Republic of Korea — without encouraging some rightists’ tendency to malign everyone on the left as a “jongbuk seryeok,” or stooge of Pyongyang.
Unification is the only plausible goal big enough to make sense of the enormous sums of money the country continues investing in its nuclear and ballistic program
But so long as the West remains unaware of just how different divided Korea is from divided Germany, it will continue misjudging and mispredicting the North’s behavior. Unification is the only plausible goal big enough to make sense of the enormous sums of money the country continues investing in its nuclear and ballistic program — and losing through sanctions as a result. After years of appearing more displeased with Tokyo than with Pyongyang, the Park administration finally appears to have grasped the gravity of the situation. Whether the electorate will show its support in the upcoming regional elections remains to be seen.
For our part, we must at least stop acting as if the only motive for North Korea’s armament too preposterous to discuss were the one that the country has reiterated, and acted in accordance with, for the past seventy years. Our initial response to 9/11 was to reduce it to a protest against U.S. support for Israel. Only recently have we begun to understand that the jihadists quite literally want the whole world. It is wishful thinking to assume that the ultra-nationalists in Pyongyang, who are far better armed than Islamic State, do not at least want the rest of their ethnic homeland.
(B.R. Myers is an associate professor and Korea analyst at Dongseo University in Busan, Korea. His books include The Cleanest Race (Melville House, 2009) and North Korea’s Juche Myth (Sthele Press, 2015).