Why North Korea’s Brinkmanship Will Never Stop

Playing up the idea of conflict with the United States is a key survival tactic for the Kim regime.

Why North Korea’s Brinkmanship Will Never Stop
Credit: Flickr/ Uri Tours

In 1946, George Kennan, an American diplomat, wrote his infamous Long Telegram, in which he spelled out the causes of Soviet conduct. Soviet behavior, which seemed irrational to most Americans, was not so irrational to Kennan. The main argument advanced by Kennan was that the Soviet Union had an inherent need for an enemy in order to justify its repressive regime and perpetuate its survival. Repression tactics in totalitarian or authoritarian regimes go a long way toward securing power, but maintaining power is easier if there is “buy in” from the population. How does one generate buy in? One way is to create a big scary enemy that is “out to get us,” as the Soviets did.

A similar dynamic is likely taking place in North Korea. The United States is the frequent focus of North Korean propaganda. It is projected and perceived as the main enemy of the state. This rhetoric is reinforced throughout North Korean society and is deeply engraved in the daily lives of its citizens. The argument that the state makes is basic: the United States is out to get us, but we, the state, can handle the situation. It is easier to lead a totalitarian regime when there is nationalistic cause around which the population can be rallied. Kim Jong-un needs an enemy, in the face of the United States.

Given its fiery rhetoric, does North Korea realize the disparity of power between itself and the United States? Probably, but not the way we understand it. Kim may be the leader, but maintaining a large military and security apparatus is not a one-man job and there are hundreds of high-ranking military and government officials. Many of them have never left North Korea and, even for those who have experience in the outside world, being pragmatic toward established adversaries may be seen as weakness within the leadership circles. Kim himself may be seen as weak if he were to scale down his approach and rhetoric.

This creates a perpetual spiral of heightening tensions, with North Korea scaling up its aggressive rhetoric toward the West and especially the United States. In many ways, Kim Jong-un is a prisoner of the system he leads. How to explain to North Korea the scale of disparity in power between it an its self-made adversary? Negotiations are one way, but they have failed at every turn. War is another, but it is costly and risky.

Of course diplomacy is better than conflict. War is not always the best option even when diplomacy fails, because the cost of going to war can be higher than accepting whatever outcome the other side desires. However, there are times when diplomacy is off the table and the adversary’s desired terms are so unacceptable that going to war is preferable. This is not a calculation that should be made lightly.

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Diplomacy is not a likely solution to tensions with North Korea, so we are left with some hard choices and questions. How likely it is that North Korea will develop a fully functional nuclear arsenal? Can we accept a nuclear North Korea and how much does it matter? If it is absolutely unacceptable, does this potential outweigh the cost and risk of war?

Answering these questions is a subjective process and a difficult one. The media today is flooded with strong opinions. On one hand there are those who insist that the issue can be solved diplomatically. That opinion is based on the assumption that North Korea may be interested in conflict resolution under the right circumstances. On the other hand, there are those who are convinced that there is not an ounce of rationality in North Korea’s actions.

Another possibility, however, is that domestic regime justification is the primary driver of Kim’s
behavior. In that case, there is no formula for a resolution since the creation of conflict for conflict’s sake — with the resulting boost to Kim’s control — is the very goal behind North Korea’s actions. If that is the case, there is nothing the United States can do or offer that will result in conflict resolution. The only options under this theory would be to accept a nuclear North Korea, as the world did with China, or accept the cost and risk of using non-diplomatic military tools.

Dmitriy Nurullayev is a Ph.D. Candidate at Louisiana State University and former fellow at the Davis Center for Russian Studies at Harvard University.