3. So What is the Point of this Crisis?
Which brings us to this current crisis, where the regime’s goals are once again very unclear. They want no war, as they will lose it, badly and quickly, and then face the hangman. Hence I would say that this is simply more brinksmanship. I see four possible reasons, which are not mutually exclusive:
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I think John Hudson at Foreign Policy gets it right that one goal is simply attention. A long-standing element of North Korean ideology is its evolution into a ‘strong and prosperous nation’ with global respect, but in reality it is ‘Turkmenistan without the oil,’ as a friend once put it at a conference. (That was my own experience in North Korea as well; the place is falling apart.) And it is well-known now that the regime’s real ideology is hyper-nationalism with a nasty racial element. Or, as your North Korean tour guide will tell you, ‘everyone knows we Koreans are best!’ So prestige – the sense that others are talking about North Korea, are aware of it, worry about it, respect it, and so on – is very important. As Oscar Wilde once put it, “the only thing worse than being talked about, is not being talked about.” This is why North Korea gets ‘insulted’ so easily. Especially for KJU, new and dilettantish, global attention is an important way to verify to himself and his people that he is in fact the leader of a real country and not just the gangster-in-chief of the Korean version of the Corleone family (which he is).
The South Korean Sunshine Policy (1998-2007) was the good old days of post-Cold War North Korea. Soviet aid ended, provoking a terrible famine that nearly brought down the country in the late 1990s. Chinese aid means the increasing economic colonization of the country. The Americans and the Japanese have gotten burned too often to come back to negotiations without real concessions. So a return to Sunshine in which Seoul extended nearly unconditional aid would be ideal. But last year, South Korean voters once again elected a conservative president. Traditionally North Korea tests new South Korean presidents with its hijinks. In this sense, the current crisis is ‘ritualized.’ North Korea would have preferred a left-wing president; last year’s leftist candidate promised a return to some version of Sunshine. So one interpretation is that this crisis is an effort to bully the new president into aid.
Recognition of its Nuclear Status
Another possibility is that a nuclear crisis demonstrates that Pyongyang has arrived as a nuclear state. North Korea has ginned up its own little version of the Cuban Missile Crisis, high on the momentum of its nuclear and missile tests, and complete with all the diplomatic pomp-and-circumstance and global media attention befitting a nuclear power. KCNA particularly has hammered away at the theme that North Korea is now a part of an elite club; nuclear weapons are, apparently, “the nation’s life.” Conversely, the other five members of the Six Party Talks (NK, SK, China, US, Japan, Russia) all want Pyongyang to denuclearize. Hence a regional nuclear crisis may serve to re-set the negotiating table so that North Korean nukes are considered a part of the status quo. They will never give them up, and this crisis is probably meant to tell us that.
The KPA Defends Military First
Finally, my own kremlinological guesstimate is that this crisis actually reflects regime power jockeying. Under Kim Jong Il, the military’s role was elevated, likely to forestall a coup. While Kim Il-Sung ruled the country through a well-established network of loyalists and did in fact fight during the Pacific War, KJI did nothing of the kind. So in the mid-90s, KJI coopted the KPA through a ‘military-first policy’ that moved North Korea from a party dictatorship toward military cronyism. The KPA was elevated in the constitution and had preferential access to the budget. Indeed, this militarization contributed to the famine by stripping the civilian budget of funds. North Korean defense spending is reckoned to be a staggering 25-35% of GDP. (That figure too is a guess based on academic conferencing and such on this issue; there is no obvious way to verify it.)
So if Kim Jong-un is the reformer of rumor, or if he simply wants North Korea to be less dependent on China and so less vulnerable to its domination, a reduction in military predation would be wise. It is not hard to imagine therefore that the generals are struggling behind the scenes to gin up reasons why the KPA continues to require an enormous presence in the government and economy. An external crisis serves perfectly to demonstrate the KPA’s necessity to North Koreans, to explain why they are poorer than their Southern cousins (which they know now due to the partial marketization and informal relations that have sprung up with China since the famine), and to remind the Kim family who is really in charge.
This does not mean a coup or shooting in the streets. Given the post-unification hangman’s noose that awaits all DPRK elites, there are strong incentives for all players to constrain factional jockeying to prevent regime collapse. That said, it is hard to imagine a youngster with no military or party experience taking over a Confucian-gerontocratic, militarized, ideological system with no establishment pushback. My own sense is that this crisis is the outcome of an internal struggle over the new pecking order under Kim III. The military does not want its privileges rolled back or civilian authority – of the party over the military – restored.
Robert E Kelly (@Robert_E_Kelly) is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University and a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat Consulting. More of his work may be found at his website: Asian Security Blog.