North Korea’s strange and offhand antics often make the country seem like a joke. Led by a man so uninspiring that Chinese bloggers have taken to calling him “the third fatty” and controlled by a state news agency that has reported both that unicorns exist and that Kim Jong Il invented the hamburger, it can be hard to take the pariah state seriously. However, the country is unfortunately much more than the global community’s annoying little sibling, and is far from harmless. The vitriolic rhetoric from Pyongyang is backed up by one of the world’s largest chemical weapons arsenals, thousands of artillery pieces aimed at its southern neighbor, a budding nuclear weapons and missile program, and a regime that has perpetrated the worst human rights abuses in the 21st century. Just this year, North Korea tested its fourth nuclear weapon and then sent a satellite into orbit using a long-range rocket system which military analysts believe could be reconfigured to launch ballistic missiles at the United States, besides constantly threatening violence against the United States and its allies. Should the international community be worried?
In short: probably not. Even credible threats are still only threats. While North Korea has sporadically lashed out in a violent manner, it always has contained its outbursts. The shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and sinking of a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, in 2010 were far from the all-out assault that its leaders have promised. While the North’s military digs tunnels under the border with South Korea, above the surface, its guns aimed at Seoul have remained silent. The North may be delusional, but it is not irrational. It knows better than to use its weapons of mass destruction. A confrontation with South Korea would draw in American forces stationed in the peninsula, leading to a conflict that would result in the toppling of the Kim regime. That is precisely what the North wants to avoid. For all the rhetoric about annihilating South Korea and establishing a unified peninsula, North Korea’s true ambition seems to be self-preservation. The nuclear program and combative posturing accomplishes this in two ways. Internally, it ensures support for the country’s military by portraying the nuclear tests as necessary checks to Western encroachment on North Korean sovereignty. Externally, the weapons of mass destruction can be used to extract concessions from the rest of the world and to prevent destabilizing outside interventions.
First, the militaristic attitude of North Korea’s leaders fuels the grand ruse that keeps the country going—the idea that unless the country invests all its resources into defense, it will be overrun by Americans and the West. North Koreans face some of the worst economic conditions in the world. Documents have emerged which show famine so widespread that people have taken to eating grass to survive—a tragic existence for the average citizen. To any outside observer, this level of abject poverty demonstrates a clear failure at the highest levels of North Korean leadership. But internally, famine and poverty are exploited by the nation’s government in a policy known as songun, or “military first politics”. In an Orwellian fashion, North Korea’s officials have perpetuated the idea that their nation is either constantly at war or about to enter into a major conflict, thereby providing a justification for the country’s military-industrial complex. The total control over information flows allows the nation’s media to scapegoat the West for most of the nation’s problems. For North Koreans, their constant hunger is due to an American blockade, while the products of their labor in factories must be diverted from civilian use to the military in order to maintain their sovereignty. However, the North Korean people must occasionally see the fruits of their labor—and that comes in the form of missile tests, nuclear detonations, and angry outbursts and threats at the West. The average North Korean civilian is locked into a cycle of deception: they are told that the West is preparing for military action, they see a swift and forceful response from their military, and they respond by trusting and supporting the North Korean government even more. It is 1984 in reality, but the Big Brother in this story is the Kim regime.
Second, North Korea’s aggressive military serves to deter outside actors from intervention and as a bargaining chip for aid. In this regard, the military is defensive and exists to stabilize the Kim regime—not to invade other countries and destroy the South. While North Korea’s leaders may exaggerate the threat of Western encroachment, it is true that the United States and its allies would prefer not to have a Kim in power in the country. In the past few decades, a powerful taboo against the use of weapons of mass destruction has limited their use in offensive warfare, but their value has remained as defensive deterrents. While North Korea’s conventional forces could not resist the combined powers of NATO, their chemical and nuclear weapons ensure the country’s security. Its weapons of mass destruction are a powerful tool in the rogue state’s bid for sovereignty and legitimacy. The Congressional Research Service explains: “The multinational military intervention in 2011 in Libya, which abandoned its nuclear weapon program in exchange for the removal of sanctions, may have had the undesirable side effect of reinforcing the perceived value of nuclear arms for regime security.” North Korea’s leaders may have their calculus correct on this point—from Libya to Iraq to Syria, countries that have abandoned weapons of mass destruction have been targets of Western interventions. Meanwhile, countries like Israel have managed to deter aggression from multiple state actors with its store of nuclear weapons. While the ethics of nuclear deterrence are questionable, the tactic has no doubt worked.
Meanwhile, the North also can use its nuclear weapons to incentivize aid inflows from the rest of the world. An unstable North Korea would be bad news for any countries with East Asian interests, especially the state’s only ally: China. The country already has enough internal problems, but if the political situation were to break down, a civil war with one side controlling nuclear weapons and the massive refugee crisis would be devastating to Beijing. Thus, Beijing is forced to trade with North Korea, provide the country aid, and lobby for the pariah state on the international stage, even if it damages China’s international credibility. North Korea is already unstable enough. But a complete breakdown would be devastating. Furthermore, in response to heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula, the United States and South Korea have often negotiated deals with the North that trade aid for nuclear concessions, giving North Korea much-needed supplies. While the North inevitably betrays these deals, nuclear weapons are the ace up Kim Jong Un’s sleeve. The country knows it can exploit its weapons of mass destruction for international gains.
The Korean War is technically not over. While a cease-fire was recognized in 1953, a formal treaty ending hostilities has never been signed. Since then, the Soviet Empire has fallen, America has seen 11 different presidents, and the North has gained nuclear capabilities. The world has undoubtedly changed, but the tense situation on the Korean Peninsula persists.