When Barack Obama left the White House, he warned incumbent United States (US) President Donald Trump that his top foreign priority should be North Korea’s nuclear aspirations. Since Trump took office, he has used the threat of his powerful military to induce North Korea to open up to the world and to scale back its nuclear weapons program. Trump recently re-stated his defiant and uncooperative position with North Korea – “If China is unable to deal with North Korea, the US and our allies will.” A few days after, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) enigmatic and dominant leader, Kim Jong-Un, conducted a missile test in response. Even though it failed, the missile test was conducted to send a message: Trump is not someone North Korea fears and the US does not represent a credible threat.
This report will focus on why Kim Jong-UN has nuclear weapons and why they remain his topmost priority. I will then discuss North Korea’s Juche ideology and how this contributes to Kim Jong-Un’s recalcitrance and non-compliance against any attempts to deter his nuclear aspirations. Finally, I will explore what the US and China can do to induce Kim Jong-Un to abandon nuclear weapons. I will argue that China is the only state that can dissuade North Korea, as they meet the necessary conditions for successful economic sanctions.
Under Kim Jong-Un’s reign (2011-ongoing), Pyongyang’s missile capabilities have grown and its arsenal’s vulnerability to attack has been reduced. Despite being 125th in the world in nominal GDP per capita (2016), North Korea has the world’s fourth largest standing army, with a potent nuclear arsenal and missile capability. It is believed they have a stockpile of approximately twenty devices, with an additional device being added approximately every six weeks. Three of North Korea’s five nuclear tests and dozens of missiles tests have been carried out under Kim Jong-Un’s reign. Kim Jong-Un often threatens to engulf Seoul, South Korea’s capital, in “a sea of fire.”
There are many views on why North Korea is pursuing nuclear development with such fervour. One is that North Korea requires a nuclear weapons program to merely survive, given its intimidating regional and international environment. Another is that they are using nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip for the survival of their own regime, in an attempt to evade criticism or challenge. It is possible they are pursuing nuclear weapons for both of these reasons. However, the opaqueness and secrecy of Kim Jong-Un’s regime mean that little is known about how decisions are made in Pyongyang.
The DPRK is guided by Juche ideology and it provides a set of guiding principles and ideas on how to be a strong and powerful leader. Kim Il-Sung first mentioned it in a public speech in 1955. It was written in the 1930s to find an ideological basis to fight off imperialist Japanese advances and as such it contains strong anti-imperialist roots. In the 1960s and 1970s, it grew in prominence and is now strongly indoctrinated into the masses.
Juche is a combination of Korean nationalism, an adaptation of Marxist-Leninist ideology, and Kim Il-Sung’s political views, which have been molded to fit the unique conditions of North Korea. It has three main principles: political independence, economic autarky, and military self-reliance. It prescribes three main goals: national liberation, anti-feudalism, and anti-imperialism. These principles and goals are demonstrated by each decision of Kim Jong-Un.
According to Juche, the political leader’s strong masculinity is of the utmost importance. The leader is described as the “Man…the master of everything and (someone who) decides everything.” This conveys a leadership figure that is omnipotent, macho and unstoppable. Kim Jong-Un maintains these leadership principles and as such is recalcitrant in his dealings with other states. To cede and agree to an international agreement or to abide by the rules set by another state calls into question Kim Jong-Un’s supreme masculine self-image. This image reduces the likelihood that he will comply with international nuclear standards.
A North Korean leader’s cult of personality and inherent authoritarianism is disseminated and indoctrinated into the public. An analogy to the human body has been used to illustrate how the state should function. The great leader is the brain that makes decisions and issues orders. The party is the nerve system that channels information. The people are the bone and muscles that execute the orders. The DPRK maintain that independence is indispensable and they maintain that they are the masters of their own destiny. Other states continue to search for strategies to deter Kim Jong-Un’s nuclear aspirations and find it difficult due to the DPRK’s inherent independence and consequent hate against foreigners who attempt to influence them.
Impeached South Korean ex-President, Park Geun-Hye, has called for South Korea to consider developing its own nuclear capabilities as a deterrence strategy. Some argue that the US, which keeps 28,550 troops in South Korea, “should deploy tactical nuclear weapons as a deterrent,” although others fear this could inflame North Korea. International pressure continues to be deemed as the preferred method to force Pyongyang into line. However, Kim Jong-Un’s own erratic behaviour, ongoing threats to other states, and the lack of success of prior deterrent strategies means no state truly knows what to expect or do.
In 2016, among Chinese and American guests, Kim Jong-Un stated that he would make efforts to denuclearise and reduce tensions on the peninsula. Yet, he frequently demonstrates none of this in practice. Just last month, North Korea tested a nuclear missile in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. He also continues to flout six-party talks, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear weapons agreements and bilateral and multilateral deals.
The Obama administration used a strategy commonly referred to as “strategic patience” to induce North Korea to reduce their nuclear aspirations. This involved a principled willingness to negotiate with North Korea if they were able to make meaningful steps to bring nuclear provocations into line. If they did so, the US was willing to make some form of concession. As North Korea has never made any form of a meaningful step, no real progress has been made. This strategy was largely ineffective.
The Trump administration has taken a more aggressive stance. Vice President Mike Pence declared, “the era of strategic patience is over.” Trump recently stated that they are “sending an armada” towards North Korea. The US is displaying to the international community a confidence that North Korea will concede and change its belligerent military stance out of fear of US armed forces. However, Kim Jong-Un, in response to the US’s aggressive rhetoric, subsequently launched missile tests. They are telling the US that they do not believe that the US represents a credible threat and as such, the US’s rhetoric is mere bluffing.
The US’s military strength will not keep North Korea at bay and will only lead to further angering North Korea. Harry J. Kazianis at The Week wrote: “If Washington ever decided it was time to take the regime down, what reason would Pyongyang have from holding back? None.” Trump’s aggressive rhetoric is not dissuading Kim Jong-Un.
A combination of economic sanctions and international financial aid is the only method that can force Kim Jong-Un to abide by international nuclear standards. World War I US President, Woodrow Wilson, said that sanctions are a “peaceful, silent, deadly remedy” that the League of Nations can use to keep the world free from war. According to Elliot & Hufbauer (1993), there are four conditions for successful sanctions: 1) when the goal is relatively modest; 2) when the target country is much smaller than the country imposing sanctions, is economically weak, and is politically unstable; 3) when the sender and target are friendly toward one another and conduct substantial trade; and, 4) when the sanctions are imposed quickly and decisively to maximize impact. According to this model, the US cannot succeed with economic sanctions as they only satisfy condition 2 and 4. Due to the erratic nature of Kim Jong-Un, condition 4 would only lead Kim Jong-Un to a more aggressive position. According to this model, only China would meet the conditions and can dissuade North Korea as they have leverage.
China is North Korea’s main importer and remains key to North Korea achieving economic autarky. China’s recent decision to comply with a UN resolution, by suspending coal imports to North Korea, indicates that they are willing to try to induce Kim Jong-Un to stop his nuclear provocations. The economic sanctions imposed by China compromises North Korea’s goal of economic autarky. However, it remains unclear whether China will continue to impose sanctions on North Korea.
During the Vietnam War, ex-US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara stated, “The indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will lead to the destruction of nations,” and that nuclear warfare does not offer a second chance. The political leaders cannot afford to implement the wrong strategy. The US has no economic leverage and also cannot use its strong military to induce North Korea. The ultra-masculine figure that Kim Jong-Un embodies leads him to not cede to military threats, as this would question that identity. Juche ideology does not advocate leaders should use diplomacy in dealings with foreign powers. When accounting for Juche ideology, North Korea’s history, North Korea’s dealings with the US and South Korea’ and North Korea’s motivations for nuclear weapons, the US has no options. The only way forward is for China to enforce economic sanctions to compromise one of North Korea’s prescribed goals – economic autarky. China is the only state able to influence North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.
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