Early this month, North Korea detonated a fourth nuclear device near its Punggye-ri nuclear facility. In the immediate wake of the test, interest focused on Pyongyang’s claims that the device was a thermonuclear explosive or hydrogen bomb (which is far more powerful than Pyongyang’s first three tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 which were non-thermonuclear). However, an important question that was overlooked is why the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) is conducting nuclear tests, rather than what kind of devices were tested.
What Drives Pyongyang’s Nuclear Exhibitionism?
Shortly after North Korea detonated a nuclear device at 10 a.m. local time on January 6, 2016, the DPRK’s state media proclaimed that the device was a hydrogen bomb, and that such devices served as defenses against external enemies. Even as we should not discount the Kim regime’s siege mentality and Pyongyang’s corresponding obsession with national security and deterrence, of which the North Korean nuclear weapons program is a key component, it could be argued that the defensive justification for periodic testing serves as a thin legitimizing veneer for what are essentially domestic and negotiative drivers for nuclear demonstrations.
Considering that neither the U.S. nor South Korea have made incursions into North Korea since the 1950-1953 Korean War, that much of the DPRK’s military forces are deployed near the demilitarized zone at the border separating the two Koreas, and that South Korea’s capital, Seoul is within range of a massive array of North Korean artillery, it is apparent that Pyongyang already has a sufficient conventional deterrence against any possibility of hostility from the U.S.-South Korean alliance. With this in mind, the former’s nuclear weapons look like overkill and hint at the existence of other driving motivations supporting its nuclear arms development.
Looking back at the 2009 nuclear test, it has been retrospectively argued by Evans Revere, writing in American Foreign Policy Interests, that the Kim regime’s second test was carried out to buttress nationalistic sentiment and pride around Pyongyang in the wake of the late Kim Jong-il’s debilitating stroke in the summer of 2008. As the then leader-in-waiting, Kim Jong-un lacked leadership experience, such a display of technical achievement provided a stable moral platform for Jong-un to assume leadership. Additionally, the subsequent opposition to the blast from the U.S. and UN allowed Kim to re-direct the domestic focus away from the DPRK’s economic malaise towards foreign enemies, providing a leadership objective for his anointed son, Jong-un. Hence, the display of domestic atomic achievement was and is intended to refresh local perceptions of North Korea’s national and military power, strongly suggesting that North Korea will progress under Kim Jong-un.
Thereafter, the third and fourth nuclear devices tested in 2013 and January 2016 respectively can also be seen as technological signals reinforcing North Korean self-esteem while shoring up Kim Jong-un’s credibility as apex leader. These tests might even be more significant for him, given that after his father, Jong-il died on December 17, 2011 he has had to show both common North Koreans, as well as Pyongyang’s elite, that he is his own man and not ruling in the shadow of his predecessor.
Concerning the DPRK’s nuclear aggrandizement as a tool to enhance negotiative efficacy with the U.S., Pyongyang’s past behavior serves as a useful guide. Consider:
- First, in 1994 Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung threatened to process plutonium from spent nuclear reactor fuel rods, which was rewarded by the Agreed Framework signed by Washington in which North Korea would receive fuel aid and nuclear proliferation resistant light water nuclear reactors, among other benefits.
- Next, after the first nuclear test in 2006, the Kim regime then led by Jong-il negotiated a deal with the U.S. in which the DPRK received fuel aid and a delisting from Washington’s list of states sponsoring terrorism in exchange for freezing its plutonium based nuclear programme and significant transparency regarding nuclear activities.
- Following Pyongyang’s second nuclear test in 2009, and after extensive negotiations, the Kim regime under Jong-un agreed to suspend all nuclear and missile tests along with uranium enrichment in return for 240,000 tons of food aid from the U.S.
As such, there exists considerable analysis pointing to domestically driven and negotiation-based reasons supporting North Korea’s nuclear munitions development.
The International Response
By now, even the most dewy-eyed proponent of eventual North Korean negotiated nuclear disarmament should realize that it is not going to happen anytime soon. However, since appeasement of the DPRK by offering it carrots in change for denuclearization progress has not worked, and weak United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions hobbled by Russian and Chinese hesitation have also not been effective, how should the U.S. and concerned regional states respond?
As it has been established that nuclear weapons are a tool to substantiate the leadership credentials, legitimacy, moral authority, and prestige of successive generations of Kims to North Korean citizens and elites, it would be fair to say that nuclear testing and demonstrations of related technology like long-range missiles have an innate value to Pyongyang. Consequently, like trying to convince a hardcore chain smoker to give up cigarettes, efforts to coax, cajole, bribe or coerce the Kim regime are going to be fiercely resisted.
Nonetheless, Washington and its regional partners need not sit on their collective hands and do nothing. Even as the UNSC ponders what punitive action to take, the region can work on convincing the DPRK’s leadership that nuclear and even rocket antics can no longer work as a coercive tool to seize international attention and bargain for aid in return for non-substantive denuclearization progress. Drawing an analogy to a spoiled child throwing a tantrum who is willing to quieten down after his parents offer him or her a desired toy or treat, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo should clearly communicate both in words and in deed to Pyongyang that its outbursts will not be rewarded in any shape or form, not even with tentative low-level contacts or negotiations. Notwithstanding the links that the Kim dynasty has made, joining nuclear aggrandizement to national pride, the U.S. and its allies could irrevocably “divorce” the North’s nuclear weapons from its partial role as benefits “harvester.” Once Pyongyang realizes this cold fact, there would be lessened utility in nuclear and even missile testing.
Lastly, despite the hermit kingdom’s Juche rhetoric championing self-reliant autarky, no nation can truly survive utter isolation. By removing Kim Jong-un’s ability to blackmail the U.S., South Korea and Japan into inadvertently sustaining his regime’s survival, the DPRK would be driven into a state of isolation that not even his father and grandfather have experienced. Once it dawns upon Kim that his sole international patron, the People’s Republic of China has well and truly lost patience with him and his regime (Kim has snubbed Chinese President Xi Jinping by not meeting the latter, even as South Korean President Park Geun-hye of South Korea has met Xi several times), and is prepared to tighten the diplomatic and economic thumbscrews on Pyongyang, perhaps he will see reason and lead the North more responsibly.
Nah Liang Tuang is an Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.