Why does North Korea want nuclear weapons? This seemingly basic question gets at the heart of one of the most divisive and important North Korea-related issues facing American foreign policy analysts, government officials, and military commanders today.
Some believe North Korea’s nuclear program is primarily meant to preserve the Kim family regime and deter a U.S attack on the small mountainous nation. So, the argument goes, negotiations and engagement are permissible as North Korea’s aims are defensive in nature.
On the other hand, some – many on the political right – believe North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are aimed at a long-term goal: the unification of the two Koreas under the DPRK’s system. This view contends that Pyongyang’s nuclear program is more offensive than defensive-minded.
This question regarding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions has larger assumptions embedded within it and is among the most pressing issues facing Beltway policymakers today.
LESSONS FROM IRAQ AND LIBYA
For years, it was assumed that North Korea’s nuclear program was primarily established as a military deterrent. Citing the overthrow of Gaddafi’s Libya and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, many American scholars and analysts concluded that North Korea’s nuclear program was largely defensive in nature.
For example, Professor John Delury told the BBC in 2016: “Above all else, North Korea’s nuclear program is about security – it is, by their estimation, the only reliable guarantee of the country’s basic sovereignty, of the Communist regime’s control, and of the rule of Kim Jong Un.” Delury continued, “North Korea learned from Iraq that Saddam Hussein’s mistake was he did not possess the weapons of mass destruction he was falsely accused of having. Libya taught a similar lesson.”
For years, it was assumed that North Korea’s nuclear program was primarily established as a military deterrent
Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), wrote in an August 2017 Forbes article: “Kim has grasped that nothing short of a nuclear capability will be sufficient to ensure his survival… having learned the lessons of Iran, Iraq and Libya, the young leader wants North Korea to be too nuclear to fail.”
However, as North Korea’s nuclear program advances and seems capable of hitting the U.S mainland with an ICBM, this interpretation of the country’s nuclear ambitions as primarily defensive has recently come under intense scrutiny in the Beltway.
Since North Korea has strategically placed rockets within range of Seoul for decades and seemingly holds the city of nearly 10 million people hostage with mere artillery, the rapid advancement of Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program begins to make less sense if one adheres to the nukes-as-survival argument.
In December 2017, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told Fox News that North Korea wants to “use that weapon for nuclear blackmail, and then, to, quote … ‘reunify’ the peninsula under the red banner.” On January 23, 2018, CIA director Mike Pompeo said at an American Enterprise Institute (AEI) event in D.C that Pyongyang’s ultimate goal is control of the two Koreas.
This trend continued this month, with the chief of the U.S. Pacific Command Admiral, Harry Harris, said at a February 14 hearing of the Armed Services Committee that Kim Jong Un’s aim is “reunification under a single communist system.”
Former U.S. ambassador to the UN and current AEI senior fellow John Bolton echoed Harris’ sentiment a week later at a security forum when he said: “At some point, people have to recognize that North Korea wants nuclear weapons not just for self-defense, but they still want to reunify the Korean Peninsula under their control.”
The Beltway’s view of North Korea’s nuclear program as a means to eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula has not always been mainstream: a few influential American scholars and observers of the DPRK have brought this idea from the periphery into the forefront of North Korean studies and seemingly influenced one of the most important perception shifts in Washington’s North Korea policy.
FROM FRINGE TO FIRE AND FURY
So what are the origins of this idea among American scholars and analysts of the DPRK, and how did it diffuse into journalistic and policy-making spheres?
The first U.S analyst to take North Korea’s post-Cold War unification aims seriously was Nicholas Eberstadt, chair of political economy at AEI (the same institution where Mike Pompeo recently spoke and where John Bolton is currently a senior fellow).
A few influential American scholars and observers of the DPRK have brought this idea from the periphery into the forefront of North Korean studies
In 1998, he wrote in the Washington Times, “This quest for unconditional unification is deeply embedded within the logic of the DPRK regime -indeed, one might even say indispensable to it. For to relinquish the claim to mastery of the entire peninsula would be to beg the rationale behind the terrible suffering the North Korean populace has endured over the past half century.”
In 2004, despite the growing economic disparity between South and North Korea, Eberstadt continued to highlight the importance of Pyongyang’s unification aims and wrote, “Although outsiders often discount such talk, the DPRK continues to proclaim that its highest goal is the reunification of the Korean nation under an ‘independent’ state, and continues to denounce the South Korean system as a illegitimate police state under the thumb of ‘imperialist’ (U.S.) forces.”
In this same report, Eberstadt said, “Forswearing nuclear weapons, furthermore, would be tantamount to relinquishing Pyongyang’s last material instrument for effecting a Korean unification on its own terms; voluntarily surrendering the goal of ‘independent Korean reunification’ might not only seem despicable to North Korea’s leadership, but positively subversive of its own domestic authority.”
Eberstadt has continued to emphasize North Korea’s unification drive and recently said in a February 18 op-ed, “Since the promise to gather all the Korean minjok under its own rule is the very rationale for the North Korean state, it is an utterly non-negotiable goal.”
Literary scholar of North Korea, BR Myers, has also argued that North Korea’s ultimate goal is not mere survival but unification on its own terms. In 2013, Myers first pressed this issue and wrote in Newsweek, “The regime is right to believe it cannot be secure until the peninsula is unified under its own rule. This is, of course, the ‘final victory’ that Kim Jong Un and his media keep boldly promising the masses.”
Since 2013, Myers has continued to argue that North Korea’s ultimate goal is reunification under Pyongyang’s command. In May 2017, the Los Angeles Times quoted Myers as saying, “North Korea is a radical nationalist state and it’s committed to anything that anybody in North Korea’s position would be — which is the reunification of the [Korean] race, and the reunification of the homeland.”
In December 2017, he opened a lecture in Seoul by stating, “Ladies and gentlemen, historians are going to look back on the North Korean nuclear crisis, and wonder why it took us so long to see what was always staring us in the face. Here we have a rapidly arming country that keeps pledging to eliminate a rival state, which it invaded in 1950 and attacked twice only 7 years ago, and most Western observers still think it can’t possibly be serious.”
As Adam Cathcart noted in a recent blog, BR Myers’ interpretation of North Korea as a far-right state, which featured prominently in his 2010 book “The Cleanest Race,” seems to be resonating amongst the most influential in Washington.
For example, U.S. President Donald Trump said in a November 7, 2017 speech in South Korea’s National Assembly, “North Korea is a country ruled as a cult. At the center of this military cult is a deranged belief in the leader’s destiny to rule as parent protector over a conquered Korean Peninsula and an enslaved Korean people.”
This is similar to the interpretation of North Korea as a race-based, military-first, and ultra-nationalist state ruled by a maternal figure. Despite describing the human rights abuses and political system in the North at length, only once in his speech did President Trump mention communism and this was in relation to the U.S. forces helping to liberate Seoul from “the communists” during the Korean War – not to the DPRK as it is today.
High-ranking North Korean defector Thae Yong-ho spoke in DC in October 2017 at a House Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, noting that the DPRK’s absorption of South Korea may follow the Vietnamese model of national reunification.
According to Thae, Kim Jong Un believes that once North Korea drives U.S troops out of South Korea, foreign investors and companies would flee the South. This would open up the opportunity for a nuclear North Korea to blackmail and essentially control the South.
This interpretation of North Korea as inherently offensive in nature has larger policy implications
DC-based observers of North Korea have increasingly taken up the belief that Kim Jong Un’s regime is not content with the status quo of a divided peninsula. Lawyer and author of the influential One Free Korea blog, Joshua Stanton, wrote in 2016 that Pyongyang’s “goal is to shift the balance of power and terrorize South Korean society into slow submission.”
Yun Sun, senior associate at the D.C-based Stimson Center, told Business Insider in August 2017, “The North Koreans’ development of nuclear weapons is eventually aimed at the eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula.”
Meanwhile, Wallace C. Gregson, senior advisor at Avascent International and senior director for China and the Pacific at the Center for the National Interest, said Kim Jong Un “seeks Korean unification on his terms. It would fulfill the Kim family destiny.” In addition, James Jeffrey, distinguished fellow at The Washington Institute and a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq, wrote in The Atlantic that North Korea’s conquest of South Korea “is less phantasmagorical than it appears.”
It seems there has been a sizable and influential paradigmatic shift in how the Beltway views North Korea’s nuclear strategy.
ALL THE WAY TO SEOUL
This interpretation of North Korea’s nuclear program as a means to reunification under the star flag has even made its way across the Pacific to the highest levels of the South Korean government. ROK unification minister Cho Myoung-gyon told the Wall Street Journal in a November interview that “the unification that North Korea wants will never happen.”
This interpretation of North Korea as inherently offensive in nature has larger policy implications: it makes U.S.-instigated violence or possibly even war on the Korean peninsula more likely to occur and makes peaceful co-existence with the country appear impossible. If Pyongyang’s reunification drive seems inevitable, a “bloody nose” strike on North Korea would make sense to deter any aggressive maneuvers by Kim Jong Un’s regime.
As more and more prominent voices in Washington adopt this interpretation of North Korea’s nuclear program as an offensive tactic to control the peninsula, look for more influential policymakers in the Beltway calling for a pre-emptive or “bloody nose” strike on the DPRK.
And while most of the scholars, analysts, observers, and journalists who ascribe to this nukes-for-reunification argument are not in favor of a pre-emptive strike, those in the Trump administration may take a different interpretation of this argument, seeing it as one that confirms their worst fears of North Korean aggression.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Why does North Korea want nuclear weapons? This seemingly basic question gets at the heart of one of the most divisive and important North Korea-related issues facing American foreign policy analysts, government officials, and military commanders today.Some believe North Korea’s nuclear program is primarily meant to preserve the Kim family regime and deter a U.S attack on the small
Benjamin R. Young is a recent Ph.D. from George Washington University. He focuses his research on modern Korea, Cold War international history, and Marxism in the Third World. He has studied the Korean language intensively at universities in South Korea, the Yanbian region of China, and in the United States.