North Korea, as a state, adheres to the Juche philosophy. Created by Kim Il-sung, the founding ruler of North Korea, it expounds a policy of self-reliance. Under the guiding hand of successive members of the Kim dynasty, North Korea has moved into the 21st century as a deeply repressive and secretive state, with its diplomatic standpoint dictated by the aftermath of the Korean war of 1950-1953 and its inability to engage with the international community over its nuclear ambitions. North Korea has had some focus on nuclear weapons as they would allow the Mutually-Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine to come into effect, essentially rendering the regime invulnerable and – more importantly – self-sufficient.
The drive for nuclear weapons has been the principle reason for it appearing in the news on a near-constant basis over the course of the summer. North Korea has been completing rocket tests at a rate previously unseen, as well as detonating a high yield nuclear device. It has also released images of a possibly miniaturised nuclear weapon, probably suitable as a payload. This relatively rapid progress reflects both the fact that the technology behind nuclear weaponry is not as advanced as before as well as an increased level of investment.
However, it is worth considering: what does North Korea need these nuclear weapons for, and who are they pointing them at? It is possible to make the assumption that all nuclear weapons are used as a means of self-defence, but in that case against whom? In the past, deterrence, against the West at least, was achieved by a large concentration of artillery pieces targeting Seoul, as well as one of the largest armies in the world. The consequences of engaging with this force at present or in the future for the West would be catastrophe causing mass casualties and major disruption if not destruction of one of the world’s largest economies. Unity in adversity against the West with its two other immediate neighbours, China and the Soviet Union, now Russia, meant that it did not require a deterrence strategy in that direction. Therefore, why the increased emphasis on nuclear weaponry?
“Kim Jong-un seems to be attempting to force the UN to conclude it is necessary to lift sanctions.”
Firstly, there is the new man on the block, Kim Jong-un. He ascended to the throne in 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, as a relatively young and inexperienced ruler. His story is deserving of at least one brutal Netflix series, but the key events in his path to power include his replacing of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam as the heir apparent and the conflict with his uncle, Jang Song-thaek. These two characters, the former killed by VX and the latter by an anti-aircraft firing squad (North Korean executions are imaginative) fuelled the potential instability of the young ruler’s regime by allegedly plotting a coup attempt in collaboration with China, which would have replaced Kim Jong-un with his elder brother. This has reportedly led to a rift opening up between Beijing and Pyonyang, possibly persuading Kim Jong-un of the need to push for nuclear weapons in order to render his regime safe from future meddling. There are further signs of a rift too, such as China attempting to hush up news of the successful nuclear test, as well as China’s cooperation with the West in enforcing harsher sanctions. He may also wish to cement his position in the pantheon of North Korean rulers by being the first member to have an operational nuclear deterrent. The North Koreans venerate the ruling dynasty, and this fulfilment of a part of the Juche philosophy would further validate his reign.
Secondly, these tests coincide with the large military exercises that NATO organises at this point in the year. North Korea views these exercises as preparation for an invasion and an affront to its sovereignty. It probably hopes that a fully capable deterrent would demotivate the US and its allies from performing these exercises, both from the threat of a strike, and the futility of preparing for an invasion against a nuclear armed state. Finally, there is North Korea’s economic and agricultural position. The North has been struggling with famines since 1994 and is largely dependent on external food aid to feed its citizens. In the past, the North Korean regime has bargained with the suspension of its weapons programme in return for international aid. By keeping the pressure up on the international community, and constantly raising the stakes, Kim Jong-un seems to be attempting to force the UN to conclude that not only is a nuclear armed North Korea inevitable, but that it is necessary for these states to engage with it in dialogue and to lift sanctions.
This is dangerous brinkmanship: but it is not mad.
_Disclaimer: I have received no funds from the North Korean regime, but if they wish to subsidise me, I am contactable by email for negotiation. No remuneration can convince me to endorse Kim’s hairstyle. _