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A nation must think before it acts.
Are you finding it difficult to keep up with the twists and turns of the goings on around North Korea these days? You’re not alone. By the time anyone planning to write about North Korea saves their text and sends it off for publication, odds are that a new, breaking development happened from the time they started writing. The following are events that transpired only in the few days (not even a full week!) since U.S. President Donald Trump called off the summit (which now appears back on again):
In other words, there has been more action over the past (almost) week than in several of the past years in North Korea-U.S. relations.
In this flurry of news of diplomatic encounters, it is only natural to forget the bigger picture. The strict focus on the potential for U.S.-North Korea talks and improved relations, however, clouds what expectations are really reasonable. Some seem to hope and believe—these two are often mixed together—that progress in U.S.-North Korea relations will lead to a wide range of changes, with North Korea both abolishing its nuclear weapons in exchange for unclear concessions from the U.S. (a peace treaty and economic assistance alone won’t cut it) and changing to a more open society in the longer run, in both the economic and political systems.
Such hopes are widely overblown. North Korea is more than its negotiators and official statements on the state news agency. It is, put simply, a country and a society. Like all other countries and societies, it operates along a certain dynamic partially unique to itself.
Many have pointed out the strategic rationale for North Korea to retain its nuclear weapons. Regime survival is its main goal. U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s use of Libya as a positive example for North Korea may have been tactically inappropriate. But North Korea didn’t hold any glaring trust for U.S. intentions before that statement either.
Moreover, nuclear weapons aren’t only important for North Korea’s strategic calculations. North Korea is a country, and like all other countries, it has a domestic political sphere with its own dynamic. This may be self-evident, but still, this fact sometimes seems entirely omitted from analyses of the country’s foreign policy. The nuclear weapons matter here, too, as it is hard to overstate how much political legitimacy and significance the regime has invested in them. The regime not only touts them as the ultimate vehicle and evidence for the country’s strength. Like scholars such as Adrian Buzo have expressed with eloquence and depth, defense of the motherland against enemies, foreign and domestic, is a key source for the regime’s raison-d’être.
Nuclear weapons do not by definition have to be part of this legitimization. But they surely help. It is no coincidence that a banner over the Yongbyon nuclear plant reads “Through our own efforts [자력갱생].” Over the past few years, the nuclear deterrent has been inscribed in North Korea’s constitution, and monuments have seemingly been built to commemorate successful tests of missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. The statements, propaganda posters, mandatory lectures, and other means of propaganda that tout the nuclear weapons as an achievement of strength—and a permanent deterrent against North Korea’s enemies, chiefly America—are a routine part of the environment of indoctrination that the regime continuously broadcasts to its citizens. When North Korea announced it would cease testing nuclear weapons, it did so by stating that its nuclear deterrent was firm enough for more tests to be superfluous.
Totalitarian states, it is often said, are difficult adversaries in international relations because they don’t rely on support from the population for their continued rule. That may be true, but only to a certain extent. If they didn’t rely on a buy-in or at least acceptance from the population, then there would be little need for propaganda in the first place. Too much flip-flopping can erode the credibility of the government (even more), with risks to its long-term legitimacy. Perhaps Kim Il-sung sensed this already in the late-1950s, when he was vehemently critical of de-Stalinization in the Soviet Union. In short, for the North Korean regime to flip 180 degrees on the issue of its nuclear deterrent may not be impossible—few things are. But for the supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, going from touting the nuclear weapons as a “treasured sword” to giving them up, that would give even for the niftiest of North Korea’s propaganda architects a great challenge. The North Korean system itself, as Daniel Pinkston has pointed out, is constructed around and geared toward the existence of conflict.
In a recent essay, North Korea scholar B.R. Myers poses a very poignant question. Say that North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons and strikes peace agreements with its main adversaries. Then what? How do we expect the North Korean regime to go justifying its existence, so long predicated upon its solemn duty to keep the country closed off and “protected” from outside influence and dependence on others? Myers lists several shaky assumptions that some make to claim that the North Korean regime will denuclearize. Echoing Myers’s skepticism, there is no reason to assume that a nuclear-free North Korea would necessarily go in a more open direction.
Take the idea that a North Korea without nuclear weapons would be more open, with less social control and more economic and political freedom. The case for this scenario often rests on the assumption that without adversarial relations with the U.S. and South Korea, the North Korean regime would be more confident in its position. It may well be just the other way around. Don’t take it from me. Listen instead to Thae Yong-ho, a former high-level official at the North Korean embassy in London, who defected to South Korea in 2016. In a recent interview, he explained that as relations with South Korea improve, North Korean authorities will work with all the more vigor to keep outside influences at bay, by upping the pressure of surveillance and punishment for ideological transgression. The North Korean regime did not survive the downfall of most other totalitarian states by sheer luck, but in large part by being very good at maintaining social and political control. The existence of a much wealthier competitor Korean regime in South Korea makes any reform and opening much riskier to North Korea than it has been for countries such as China and Vietnam.
To think that the regime would take measures that severely risk its hold on power and control over the country’s trajectory is to vastly underestimate both its skill and how much it learned from the downfall of communism in Europe. As Thae points out, Kim Jong-un’s predilection for special economic zones (SEZs) is no coincidence. Through SEZs, the regime hopes to reap the benefits of economic development, while containing potential broader impacts detrimental to its control. Perhaps China will serve as a model for economic development for Kim, but it likely won’t stop there. As political scientist Yuen Yuen Ang explains in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, the Chinese regime has been remarkably successful at incorporating some of the facets of democratic governance that facilitate efficiency, while maintaining solid authoritarian control. If Kim is indeed inspired by China’s development trajectory, part of the story surely is the Chinese regime’s success at maintaining communist party rule.
None of this is to say that North Korea can’t or won’t denuclearize. Seemingly impossible or unexpected things happen often, and it’s only with the historical perspective of hindsight that they begin to make sense. Nor is it to say that North Korea’s political and economic system will never change or become more open. The economy certainly has over the past few decades, albeit without any sweeping reform announcement. It is only to say that the logic of the North Korean system, its ideology, and social model, makes such scenarios difficult to envision. Whatever happens, we can trust that it won’t occur along the lines of any linear model, and perhaps not in a way that we can at all envision.