The Koreas

What’s Driving North Korea’s Frantic Military Development?

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The Koreas | Security | East Asia

What’s Driving North Korea’s Frantic Military Development?

Kim Jong Un is attempting to circumvent discontent at home with a strong show of military prowess. It’s a dangerous game.

What’s Driving North Korea’s Frantic Military Development?
Credit: Pixabay

Following its run of missile tests last year, North Korea continues its nuclear and conventional military provocations targeting South Korea and the United States at an unprecedented level. Some experts believe that the current situation on the Korean Peninsula is more dangerous than at any time since the Korean War. 

At the ninth plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee in December last year, North Korea’s top leader, Kim Jong Un, declared an ultra-hardline offensive policy against the United States, defined inter-Korean relations as “two hostile countries at war,” and announced his will to go to war for the unification of the Korean Peninsula.

Why Is North Korea So Committed to Military Provocations?

What is the background and strategic intention behind North Korea’s unusual level of military provocation over the past two years? Above all, North Korea seems to believe that the so-called new Cold War structure between North Korea, China, and Russia on one side and South Korea, the United States, and Japan on the other is being revived in the wake of the Ukraine War. Additionally, it appears that Kim believes that this international power structure provides the best opportunity to launch active offensives against South Korea and the United States.

Based on this judgment of the international situation, what Kim wants to achieve can be analyzed in two ways: the domestic and the international. 

First, it appears that Kim intends to strengthen internal solidarity by breaking through the crisis caused by the failure to reach a deal at the 2019 North Korea-U.S. summit in Hanoi and subsequently the COVID-19 pandemic.

The North Korean people had hoped that they would be able to live better lives through the lifting of economic sanctions and food aid if North Korea-U.S. relations improved, only to face disappointment and frustration when the U.S. president walked out of the summit. Their misery deepened thanks to North Korea’s draconian border closure amid the pandemic. In order to overcome this internal crisis, Kim Jong Un declared a “head-on breakthrough strategy” at the ninth plenary meeting in December last year. 

Second, Kim appears to be trying to create favorable conditions for future negotiations with the next U.S. administration by raising the international priority of the North Korean nuclear issue through a display of his power. Although the Hanoi summit was not successful, Kim appears to have judged the current international situation as a golden opportunity to resume “brinkmanship” against the United States. Indeed, to date North Korea has not faced many consequences for its rapid succession of military provocations, as antagonism between China and Russia on one side and the United States on the other has paralyzed the United Nations Security Council.

Kim Jong Un Trapped in the “New Cold War” Structure

However, there are significant doubts as to whether Kim’s strategic intentions can actually be achieved. First, Kim’s judgment of the international situation appears to contain an inherent error of overlooking the important differences between today and the original Cold War. In fact, the recently developed North Korea-China-Russia cooperation has clear limitations. It is not a steadfast solidarity based on the shared values and ideologies of the Cold War era, but a marriage of convenience to respond to a common enemy. 

Moreover, the feasibility of North Korea-China-Russia cooperation developing into an actual military alliance is highly uncertain due to differences in mutual interests. In particular, China is a country with a strong tendency to be a so-called status seeker, prioritizing its reputation in the international community. China’s situation as a budding global leader is completely different from North Korea and Russia, which are isolated under sanctions from the international community. In that regard, China is well aware that the strengthening of North Korea-China-Russia solidarity will not only cause trade friction with the West, but also provide justification for accelerating the United States’ military intervention in East Asia and blockade of China.

Furthermore, Kim should keep in mind that the more he accelerates his nuclear and missile provocations by relying on North Korea-China-Russia solidarity, the more the United States’ extended deterrence and the South Korea-U.S. combined preparedness posture will be strengthened. As is well known, North Korea has consistently demanded from the United States a “permanent cessation of ROK-U.S joint exercises” and a “ban on the deployment of US strategic assets on the Korean Peninsula” in order to “guarantee the right to survive.” This was also strongly requested at the Stockholm working-level meeting in September 2019. However, the recent increase in North Korea’s military provocations is resulting in further strengthening of extended deterrence, which is already considered to be at the highest level ever.

What is especially noteworthy is that if the North Korean nuclear threat continues to increase, not only can extended deterrence be strengthened at the bilateral level between South Korea and the United States, but a separate extended deterrence system involving regional countries such as Japan and Australia may be formed. If necessary, some NATO allies may also participate. 

Deepening Economic Hardship and Domestic Instability

What needs to be noted more than anything is the seriousness of North Korea’s internal situation. As the asymmetry between defense and the economy, the two essential pillars for the survival of the Kim regime, deepens, the North Korean people’s dissatisfaction with the system is rapidly spreading. 

At the 8th Party Congress in 2021, Kim Jong Un simultaneously announced a five-year defense development plan and a five-year economic development plan along the line of “nuclear and economic development side by side.” However, unlike North Korea’s achievements in nuclear capabilities, the economic sector has been recording a negative growth rate for several years and has gradually worsened.

According to the Korea Rural Development Administration, North Korea’s food production in 2023 will be 700,000 tons short of requirements. Despite the perpetual food insecurity facing its residents, North Korea’s government launched various missiles in January of this year alone, at an estimated cost that could have funded the food consumption of all North Korean residents for the month (300,000 tons).

What is noteworthy is that the worsening economy and food shortages are rapidly spreading dissatisfaction with the Kim regime, especially among marginalized local residents and the generation born during or after the “Arduous March” in the 1990s. Although the North Korean authorities are strengthening legal measures to control the spread of South Korean ideology and culture every year, anti-regime sentiment among North Korean residents is growing, especially among the youth generation. In fact, 99 of the 196 North Korean defectors who entered South Korea in 2023 were from the youth generation, and the predominant reason for their defection was not “lack of food” but “rejection of the North Korean system.” 

The nervous North Korean authorities are trying to strengthen the ideological control of the people by legally defining South Korea as a “hostile country at war,” but it appears to be insufficient to reverse this phenomenon.

How Long Can Kim Jong Un Provide ‘Circuses Instead of Bread’?

The Kim regime is continuing the so-called torture of hope by showing starving residents a thrilling circus show instead of the bread they want, and telling them that they can make a good living if their country completes an unrivaled nuclear force.

However, today’s North Korean youth were born at a time when ideological confrontation disappeared with the end of the Cold War. Even within North Korea, the distribution system, the foundation of the communist system, collapsed and today’s younger North Koreans grew up in the “jangmadang” (markets). In other words, it should be kept in mind that these people have significantly less loyalty to the Kim family and the party. Younger North Koreans have a strong tendency to seek their own way of living without entrusting their survival and fate to an absolute leader, and have an open tendency to South Korean culture and values

As North Koreans watched the results of the recent North Korea-Russia summit, they must have been once again disappointed by the Kim regime, which prioritizes nuclear weapons and military technology over the people’s livelihood. History shows very often that dictatorships collapse from within, not from invasion by external forces.