Debunking the Myth of North Korean Attention-Seeking

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By John Henzel

Since the days of Kim Jong-il, many policymakers and pundits have been mystified by North Korea’s seemingly aberrant behavior. As a result, many latch onto the idea that the DPRK is an irrational or attention seeking nation – a state to which the typical rules do not apply. How else could the news coming out of Pyongyang make any sense? What other possible motivations could the Kims have for their supposedly bizarre array of provocations?

Well, regime security comes to mind.

The assertion that North Korea’s actions are merely pulling at the pigtails of the international community or is playing a persona for the outside world is woefully misguided. The DPRK has more salient and rational motivations for its behavior than trying to score points in international headlines. Nearly every eyebrow-raising exploit north of the 38th parallel is tied into security, be it internal or external. Yet misperception of the North’s leadership remains prevalent.

Let’s examine the North’s nuclear weapons program. The attention myth most likely solidified in Washington’s exasperation over the Six Party Talks, where the DPRK sat down with delegates from the United States, South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan to hash out its nuclear future. According to many analysts, North Korea eventually walked away from the talks after displaying a repeated “brinksmanship” strategy to gain concessions. The logic of this approach is to induce an international incident in order to get material kickbacks, such as food aid, or to reinforce the regime’s image or standing to the rest of the world. A New York Times article accurately captures this view by calling the DPRK’s nuclear weapons program a “trump card.” That is to say, it was a means to other prizes but not an end in itself.

This argument is compelling when you think back to the DPRK of the 1990s. After threatening to leave the NPT in 1993, Pyongyang managed to secure the biggest change in U.S. policy towards the DPRK ever in the form of the Agreed Framework. If this was a game of chicken, Washington blinked. It certainly seems plausible that North Korea would learn that lesson and use it to extort everything down to the kitchen sink from the international community. After all, following the collapse of the Soviet Union – their main communist benefactor – the DPRK didn’t have many friends with open pockets.

Except, what does North Korea have to show for its behavior? If the nuclear weapons program was a “trump card” to secure other objectives, why not take the payoff? The fact remains that the DPRK has consistently walked away from lucrative deals for relinquishing its nuclear arsenal and has instead endured harsh economic sanctions and international condemnation to maintain it. Pyongyang clearly places a premium on its weapons program, yet it remains trenchant – or combative – after every new round of sanctions.

Contrary to the popular narrative in the United States then, Pyongyang’s ultimate goal for its nuclear weapons program is to have a deterrent against attack by the United States. Any benefit or leverage gained by threatening to have a nuclear program is offset by the actual benefit of possessing nuclear deterrence. North Korea needs a real strategic trump card instead of a mere bargaining chip.

This will be the case until North Korea and United States can reach an agreement to fully normalize relations. As it stands, the Kim leadership fears that Washington decision-makers’ talk of regime change north of the 38th parallel will turn into military action – somewhat justifiably under the current administration and in the Bush era.

But who would dare meddle in the internal affairs of a nuclear weapons state, much less try to overthrow its leadership? A North Korean nuclear arsenal would change the calculus of regime change from “How many soldiers’ lives are an acceptable risk?” to “Can we risk the entire civilian populations of Seoul, Tokyo, and San Francisco?” This gives Pyongyang a reliable defensive position for once.

Deterrence explains a lot of the DPRK’s seemingly inexplicable actions. Nuclear tests one, two, and three are just that – tests to figure out problems and perfect their deterrent. After all, nobody has gone nuclear without at least one nuclear test somewhere along the line (even Israel likely participated in the Vela incident), particularly for the trickier plutonium type of bomb North Korea has been using. The only symbolism or attention seeking present in the tests was giving proof to Washington of their nuclear status and deterrent capabilities.

Each of the tests were meant as trial runs for some important factor of building a nuclear deterrent, ranging from basic ability to produce an explosion to reliable miniaturization of the technology for warhead use. After their first test fizzled in 2006 (some argue as a result of too much ambition rather than incompetence), they geared up a second in 2009 and apparently fixed the faults, thus proving their technical ability. The third test last month could be the DPRK switching to high enriched uranium (HEU) from plutonium, further testing for miniaturization (what’s the point of having a huge explosive you can’t mobilize effectively?), or both.

Of course, this deterrence strategy won’t win you any friends. In fact, it may necessitate aggressive acts and posturing to bolster the deterrent’s credibility, but it’s preferable to be alive and friendless than friendly and dead, right?

That question brings me to internal regime security. It’s important to note that what is best for North Korea as a state may not be best for Kim Jong-un and the ruling military elites.

On paper, North Korea’s choice to be a “rogue regime” and pursue strategies beyond the pale of international acceptance has clearly cost it dearly in terms of economic development and has even strained its relationship with China. If “rogue” actions drive the international community’s push for regime change, why not just abandon the nuclear weapons program, open up economically, and live happily ever after with the international community?

Because the international community will never accept the current regime. Unless the DPRK leadership dismantles its military-first, human rights abusing system entirely, calls for intervention on humanitarian grounds will persist.

The internal liberalization that would end the regime’s “rogue” standing with the international community could unleash powerful domestic forces hostile to the regime. The Kim regime doesn’t oppress its people for kicks; it oppresses its people to ensure that a popular uprising against its rule can never form. The Kim regime doesn’t bribe the military complex with a position of importance because it likes them better than other branches of government; it bribes them to ensure the military doesn’t try a hand at regime change themselves. They’ve learned the lessons of Gaddafi and of Park Chung-hee all too well, ruling out anything shy of an iron hand for internal affairs.

If the Kim regime wants to continue ruling North Korea, it will draw international ire in some form or another. Unless Kim Jong-un wants to become the next dictator to live out his last moments in a foxhole, political liberalization isn’t palatable to the regime. So it’s guaranteed that the DPRK will be condemned as a human rights violator. That realization drives Pyongyang’s fear of regime change, tying their internal and external security demands together.

The regime’s supposedly irrational behavior, ranging from stubborn insistence on missile tests to unicorn propaganda, derives from this uncomfortable position. Careful analysis shows that the quirky headlines belie a deeper narrative; the Kim regime has and will continue to emphasize its own security from internal and external threats regardless of international perception. The misperception of North Korean attention-seeking behavior causes policymakers to implement the wrong strategies, ones based on the notion of punishing a petulant child. Instead policymakers and media outlets need to reject the attention myth and formulate policy based on Pyongyang’s real strategic interests.

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John is a senior editor for the Journal and a second year master’s candidate at the Whitehead School. He specializes in international security and foreign policy analysis with a research focus on East Asia.

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One thought on “Debunking the Myth of North Korean Attention-Seeking

  • April 6, 2013 at 9:15 pm
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    Well written. Solid thinking. I believe the author has hit the nail on the head.

    Today, more than when this essay was written, things on the peninsula could blow at any time. Lets hope cooler heads prevail.

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