The Byungjin policy has come under a lot of criticism and even ridicule from the West since it was proclaimed at the Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea on March 31, 2013. It was termed “…a new strategic line on carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously,” even though it was new it was legitimized by reference to the past. It was, the official statement said:
… a brilliant succession and development onto a new higher stage of the original line of simultaneously developing economy and national defence that was set forth and had been fully embodied by the great Generalissimos.
Kim Jong Un had only been in power a few months, and the posthumous endorsement of the great Generalissimos, Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, was to be expected. Later articles made even more specific reference to Kim Il Sung’s 1962 policy of “simultaneously developing the economy and defence.” Whilst the continuity was there, the new policy was in fact a bold and imaginative grasping of the opportunity that the transformation of the nuclear weapons calculus offered.
That was not the way the critics saw it. Scott Snyder, assuming that deterrence was unnecessary, argued that the economic costs were immense:
With its policy of simultaneously pursuing economic and nuclear development, North Korean leaders clearly assume they can manage the economic costs resulting from nuclear development. But the costs of such a policy are staggering compared to the economic benefits North Korea might enjoy without nuclear weapons.
Glynn Davies, the Obama administration’s Special Representative for North Korea Policy saw the Byungjin policy not as dual- track but as prioritizing nuclear weapons development. The ability of Davies to see one thing but not the other was perhaps demonstrated by his comment that:
…in the 21st century, North Korea is the only nation on earth that has exploded nuclear devices. They’ve done it not once, not twice, but three times.
Correct, of course, but Davies omitted mentioning that in the 20th century the United States had exploded over 1,000 nuclear devices, a couple of them over cities, killing hundreds of thousands of people.
Some former officials, such as Joseph R. DeTrani and Evans J. R. Revere mention the Byungjin policy, not as prioritizing but as simultaneous development but without discussing the implications. Ruediger Frank, in posing the question “Can North Korea Prioritize Nukes and the Economy At the Same Time?” assumed that Byungjin implied an increase in military spending, and wondered where the money could come from. Adam Cathcart described Byungjin as a policy “which places nuclear development as a necessary precondition for (and, oddly, a stimulant to) economic growth.” the “oddly” implying that it was contradictory. Chinese commentator Jin Qiangyi called it “paradoxical” and doomed to fail, curiously overlooking China’s experience in shielding behind a (modest) nuclear deterrent while developing the economy. Perhaps China was at the back of Daniel Pinkston’s mind when he drew attention to what he saw as the international implications of Byungjin:
If North Korea is able to implement this strategy successfully it will be very dangerous and destabilizing, both regionally and globally. The international community has an absolute obligation to do what it can to obstruct, deny and falsify the Byungjin Line strategy and do everything it can to ensure that it fails and that the North Koreans are unable to achieve their goals.
In so many ways North Korea today is China 50 years ago, and we can best assess the debate over the Byungjin line by putting it in a historical and international context.
THE NUCLEAR EVOLUTION
In 1945, when the United States ushered in nuclear warfare, these weapons were very much the exclusive prerogative of the economically powerful. So much so that Germany had abandoned its development of nuclear weapons and Britain had handed over its assets to the Americans, becoming a junior partner in the Manhattan Project. However, whilst the American monopoly on nuclear weapons was temporary, the paradoxical nature of the new weapon was permanent.
The Soviet Union broke the U.S. monopoly in 1949 and, since then, a further eight countries have become nuclear weapons states, the last being North Korea. The bomb has gone from being exclusive to the greatest state to becoming something that is accessible, technically if not politically, to quite small states and even, it has been suggested, to non-state groups, though that is probably a matter of fantasy. A signal advantage of a non-state group is that it avoids the retaliation that would be visited upon a state. A variant of this theme is the idea that a “rogue state” might provide terrorists with a nuclear device, and many have suggested North Korea for this role. That can easily be discounted because, apart from the question of motivation, nuclear forensics provide attribution and hence allows retaliation.
Although access to nuclear weapons has changed considerably, the conundrum over its use and utility has not. It is primarily a retaliatory weapon, hence its role in deterrence. But if it is used, that shows that deterrence has failed. Precisely because they are so powerful they offer little value as an offensive weapon, although the Americans, at least, have toyed with the concept of miniaturized devices such as “bunker busters.” To attack a comparable nuclear power with nuclear weapons would precipitate retaliation and their use against vulnerable non-nuclear countries, wider political implications aside, would destroy the object of desire. Although the U.S. has contemplated using nuclear weapons in its frequent wars since 1945 (e.g. in Korea and in Vietnam) it has not done so. The only actual use of nuclear weapons – the double strike against Japan – might appear at first sight to be offensive, and was justified as a means of ending the war quickly, it was in fact more of a message to the Soviet Union, an act of pre-emptive nuclear deterrence.
The Soviet Union was a formidable conventional military power, and so the U.S. saw nuclear weapons nullifying that. Nowadays, the United States, and its allies, have overwhelming conventional superiority; NATO’s military expenditure in 2010 was 23 times that of Russia. As a recent paper from U.S. Naval Postgraduate School Center on Contemporary Conflict puts it:
Today, the global balance of power is reversed. Now U.S. military forces are the most formidable, and potential U.S. adversaries need trump cards of their own to stalemate the United States. This reversal in the balance of power helps explain why the United States now seeks to delegitimize nuclear weapons and reduce their role in the world. Unfortunately, the same conditions that once made NATO rely on nuclear weapons will now likely compel other countries – including several potential U.S. adversaries – to rely upon nuclear weapons.
These countries, from North Korea up to Russia, develop nuclear weapons to redress the growing imbalance in conventional military power. But nuclear weapons offer more than that, as Shen Dingli argues:
Pursuing nuclear weapons technologies does not hinder economic growth. There is not a single example of a country abandoning nuclear weapons projects due to financial reasons; not China, not India and not Pakistan. Although the development of nuclear weapons requires an initial startup investment, secondary and tertiary phases of such programs require less money to maintain. Over the long term, nuclear weapons are much cheaper to maintain compared to conventional military forces. And the benefits on the part of national security that the nuclear deterrence will bring forth far outnumbered the economic costs of a nuclear weapon program.
This is the basis for North Korea’s assertion that:
Now the DPRK, as a full-fledged nuclear state, has a favorable condition to concentrate all efforts on economic construction and improvement of people’s living in reliance upon the powerful war deterrent.
The hostile forces are seeking to suffocate the DPRK by inveigling it into arms race, but the DPRK is channeling big efforts into economic construction and improvement of the people’s living while steadily beefing up war deterrent without increasing defense expenditures.
Bolstering self-defensive nuclear deterrent precisely means economic construction.
Whether military expenditure will be contained is as yet unclear. There are reports of a further shifting of the military to economic activity and a reduction in the armed forces but there are also reports about the developments of drones and helicopter frigates. Moreover, for Pyongyang there is a big downside in an overreliance on a nuclear deterrent. Nuclear weapons can’t actually be used, except in what the Israelis call the Samson option, so its military will, in effect, become increasingly inferior to its adversaries and less able to respond to challenges. That will happen anyway, because the North cannot compete in hardware with the South, let alone the U.S. But the Byungjin policy may exacerbate the trend.
Picture: Prachatai, Flickr Creative Commons