The Missing Puzzle Piece: The Domestic Incentive to Stay Nuclear

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Disclaimer: This blog post solely reflects the opinion of the authors and should not be taken to represent the general views of IPPR’s management team or those of fellow authors.

Source: Center for Strategic & International Studies

On February 27th, in Hanoi, Vietnam, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump will meet for the second time to revive the denuclearization process. This is not the first time the United States is negotiating with North Korea, which has been trying to get North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons ever since its first nuclear test in 2006. These efforts have failed repeatedly; as a result, North Korea was able to develop further its nuclear program every year. Now, experts estimate that a North Korean produced nuclear bomb is able to reach Hawaii or Guam, if not California.

Considering the destruction these weapons can bring, it is imperative that the United States and North Korea create a peaceful environment, with less possibility for escalation. While reading the American coverage of this affair, I could not help but notice that the onus to create this more peaceful environment is almost always on the United States or South Korea. The assumption is that there is a perfect solution out there and if only the United States and South Korea can find it, that North Korea will give up its nuclear weaponry. Therefore, the focus of the policy-making is on finding the right balance of sticks and carrots, reducing military activities that can be interpreted by the North as aggressive, displaying peaceful gestures, and providing economic incentives. But what if it does not matter what the international community does? What if there is a domestic condition that will make it attractive for Kim to keep his nuclear weapons no matter what? The 2014 article ‘Making It Personal: Regime Type and Nuclear Proliferation’ by Christopher Way and Jessica Weeks offers a possible answer to such questions.

According to the article, North Korea is not just any kind of authoritarian regime. It is what is called a Personalist Dictatorship. Under this style of government, every major decision in the country is made by its leader. There is a cult of personality and the government officials’ survival and success are determined by the quality of the relationship that person has with the leader. Senior posts are often filled with the relatives of the leader, who would not have any power if not for the leader. It is distinguishable from other types of authoritarian regimes where there is a possibility of amassing power by appealing to other groups such as the military, influential oligarchs, or the party establishment. The article shows that this type of dictatorship, such as North Korea, Libya under Gaddafi, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, is the most likely to pursue nuclear weaponry. The logic behind this strategy is that the development of a nuclear weapon arsenal allows the leader to maintain the absolute control of the military while also expanding its capability significantly. If the leader were to build up the military through conventional means, it is inevitable to delegate responsibilities, which means that senior military officers will obtain more power.

Virtually every expert and observer agrees that North Korea’s priority is regime survival. Not a survival of the state or North Korean people but of Kim’s dynasty. Some say that the reason why North Korea is holding on to its nuclear weapons is to ensure its survival under the threat of a potential American invasion. This threat is overblown. There is no domestic will either in South Korea, Japan, or the United States to start a war with North Korea. Even without the nuclear weapons, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people would be killed in the first several days of the war, because Seoul, a city of 10 million people, is so close to the border. The days of Communist expansion are over, and the potential loss of civilian life is not worth it for the United States to invade North Korea. On the other hand, most personalist dictatorships are not overthrown by the foreign invasion, but rather by domestic unrest such as a coup. So far, Kim has been able to consolidate unchallenged authority. Currently, the possibility of a coup is very low, because dissent means death. The only way to survive is to remain loyal to Kim. The dissatisfied elites usually defect and live in exile, instead of forming an opposition. However, denuclearization and liberalization can both increase the discontent and the likelihood of survival while expressing dissent. Many senior military officials have been serving since the Korean War or the days of Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea. Their worldview is based on the Cold War struggle against capitalist imperialist America and its puppet South Korea. It is unlikely that these seniors will be content if this 35-year-old grandson takes charge in making deals with the archenemy and opening up the country. It will be destabilizing, and hardliners will resist such developments.

Additionally, denuclearization and normalizing relations with other countries may create channels in which the population can express grievance. The extreme totalitarian nature of the North Korea society has helped stabilize the country throughout the regime’s brutal rule. That is why you do not see any popular protest in North Korea even in extremely impoverished areas. The government’s hand reaches nearly all aspects of one’s lives. Independent civil society or activist network cannot emerge, for it will be immediately suppressed. You are constantly watched by the police, the military, your neighbors, and even by your family members. People are taught to report those who may be rebellious. Ironically, North Korean dissenters may be policing each other, not knowing what the other really thinks, because they must behave like a good communist in public. North Korean stability depends on this total control of people’s minds and behavior. That is the reason why North Korea bans American and South Korean TV shows and restricts cell-phone use. Occasionally, North Korea agrees to the family reunifications, in which the families separated by the Korean War can see each other for few days before being taken apart again. However, it only happens in North Korea. South Korean family members must travel to the North and they cannot bring any presents that might suggest a good life in the South. Well organized local and individual-level control combined with the denial of knowledge about the outside world has been crucial to the survival of the Kim dynasty for the past 70 years. Giving up nuclear weapons, liberalizing the economy, normalizing relations with South Korea and the broader world are all alternative ways to possibly open new routes in which North Koreans can get power without depending on Kim, which makes staging a coup by the military or other elites easier. It will also disrupt people’s conceptions about the nefarious nature of the outside world and the superiority of the North Korean society. It will loosen the control the government has on people’s conscience.

Some optimists say that he will. He is young, more open-minded than the previous leaders, and likes some parts of the Western culture such as basketball. That is precisely what makes this man so sinister. He was educated in Switzerland and therefore knows what it is like to live in a developed, liberal, and democratic society where people are free to pursue their happiness, however they define it. Yet, he now runs the most totalitarian country in the world, where a “crime” as silly as not displaying a picture of the supreme leader in your living room can get you in a forced labor camp. So far, he has murdered many, including his half-brother and his uncle, to stay in power. Other than our wishful thinking, what is the evidence that he has had a change of heart?

I am not saying that a breakthrough cannot happen at the summit. Truly, I hope it does. However, we must acknowledge the reality of North Korean politics. Kim was not dragged into negotiating with Trump because of the sanctions, as some American officials would like to believe. He walked in confidently with his nuclear weapons ready and meeting with Trump as an equal counterpart elevated his international and domestic positions further. It does seem that he is interested in better economic future for his country, but he will only go so far as he can maintain his grasp over his country. If denuclearization risks diminishing his power, he is likely to walk away, and we should not be surprised.

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