Progress on denuclearisation negotiation

North Korea’s siege mentality and evolving strategic goals

North Korea’s denuclearisation strategy reflects the latest strategic guidelines of the Worker’s Party of Korea (WPK). For decades, North Korea’s strategic guidelines evolved from its National Defence-Economic Development Byungjin strategy (1966), Songun (military first)-Economic Development Strategy (2003), Economy-Nuclear Development Byungjin strategy (2013) to the latest Socialist Economic Development strategy (2018). With the Economy-Nuclear Development Byungjin strategy, the Kim Jong-un regime pursued the parallel development of both the economy and its nuclear programme but prioritised the nuclear sector. The Kim Jong-un regime then coupled its nuclear deterrent with economic development in the expectation that as the North completes its nuclear development, it will reallocate its budget from nuclear development to economic development. The nuclear programme was therefore seen as a shield which would protect the North from external threats, while they continued to develop their economy.

The North Korean regime’s threat perception stems from a siege mentality. Siege mentality is the feeling in a country that the rest of the world has highly negative intentions towards it.2 Thus, according to North Korea, its domestic and international difficulties mostly stem from the hostile policies of the United States and its allies. North Korea’s response to international sanctions is an example of how the isolated leadership in Pyongyang views itself as a nation under siege. For instance, following the last round of the United Nations (UN) Security Council sanctions imposed on North Korea for conducting its fifth nuclear test in September 2016, Ja Song Nam, the UN ambassador of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), defended his country’s efforts to strengthen its nuclear deterrence against the ceaseless hostile moves by the United States. In a letter to the UN Security Council, Ambassador Ja stated that “the US has intention of political suffocation and system collapse of the Kim Jong-un government” and alleged that following the 2012 death of North Korean leader Kimjung-il, the United States began to openly plot the overthrow of the government in Pyongyang. A memorandum of the North Korean Foreign Ministry provides an extensive list of alleged US military provocations. These include: (1) increasing the

Sino-US strategic stability 109 number of US troops participating in joint military exercises with South Korea from 3,500 in 2013 to 27,000 in 2016; (2) deployment of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines as well as nuclear strategic bombers in the region; (3) practising pre-emptive strike exercises, simulating taking control of the North’s nuclear facilities; and (4) deploying the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea. While the United States and its allies argue that they are taking these stronger conventional measures to counter the increasing North Korean nuclear threats represented by multiple nuclear tests and missiles launches, these arguments have been interpreted by the North as offensive.

Origins of North Korea’s siege mentality, particularly with regard to the United States and its allies in the region, date back to Japanese colonisation in the early 20th century and the Korean War in 1950. It is deeply embedded in its anxieties regarding the potential revival ofjapanese militarism and the possible subversive contingency plan that might be adopted by the United States.4 During the Korean War, Kim Il-sung’s intention to unify the Korean Peninsula was indeed frustrated by US and the UN intervention, which even pushed the North to the edge of regime collapse. Since then, the United States has been considered to be the biggest threat to the North and it has repeatedly evoked dismal experiences of the Korean War for the North Korean people, to emphasise the imperative to take a stand against the hostile acts of the United States. Such antagonistic historical memories relating to the United States and Japan even serve to justify the constant war mobilisation and war readiness inside the North. Condemnation and contempt for the United States and its allies have been all pervasive in North Korean politics, literature, arts, media, and education.’’ Even after the end of the Cold War, North Korea’s siege mentality did not dissipate. Drawing lessons from Iraq and Libya, North Korea learned that authoritarian dictators who had forgone weapons of mass destruction in exchange for an economic incentive did not survive long. Muammar Gaddafi of Libya, for instance, was killed because of civil unrest within his own country.

Of course, the United States is not the only reason for this siege mentality. Asymmetric alliances between North Korea, China, and the Soviet Union during the Cold War have also strengthened the siege mentality. As a junior partner in the alliance, North Korea had struggled with political and economic interference, albeit with the two socialist countries consolidating a regime in the northern part of the Korean Peninsula.6

As the North saw itself plagued by external threats, the regime fostered strong fears of an imminent threat from outside to justify its control over its citizens, the massive expenditure on the military, and the continuing unchallenged rule of the Kim family. Moreover, North Korea portrays nuclear weapons as the most effective tool to counter the external threat from the United States and its allies.7 Furthermore, nuclear weapons serve to preserve the existing Kim Jong-un regime in North Korea.

However, this allegedly defensive motivation for maintaining a nuclear programme could be tested soon. Theoretically, North Korea’s strategic goals range from regime survival at the minimum and reunification of Korean Peninsula onits terms at the maximum, while the debate continues on whether North Korea’s strategic goals can be moderated in between.8 Moderation implies that the North would pursue economic reform, cut military spending, and improve relations with perceived adversaries, especially with the United States and its allies, instead of pursuing unification of the Peninsula on its terms. Why the North would choose such a policy of moderation remains a matter for debate among scholars. Those who argue that North Korea will opt for moderation emphasise its siege mentality and insist that North Korean leaders have been gradually liberalising the economy, while the struggle between the “traditional military” faction and “economic reformers” within the leadership continues.9 From this perspective, North Korea is unlikely to pursue its aggressive strategic goal, that is, invade South Korea and complete the reunification of the Peninsula. Instead, it desires peaceful coexistence with the South.10 On the other hand, there are those who argue that recently adopted reforms are simply an ad hoc adjustment to ensure regime survival. Furthermore, as the Kim Jung-un regime keeps indoctrinating its people with its resolve to unify the Korean Peninsula, it is less likely to publicly moderate its strategic goals as such gesture will incur audience cost, weaken the legitimacy of the regime, and destabilise the regime security.11 For instance, when North Korea successfully launched the Hwasung-14 Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the North Korean leader spoke of “the final victory”, which indicates reunification of two Koreas.

Between strategic goals of regime survival and reunification, there are many other alternatives: North Korea might use its nukes as leverage to normalise relations with the United States and Japan,12 might deter any response to its own low-level provocation around the Korean peninsula,18 and might weaken the US alliances with South Korea and Japan.14

The problem is, regardless of their specific goals, the pace of its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles programme might allow North Korea to move beyond any debate on moderation and achieve all of these objectives. In other words, the completion of its nuclear programme can enable the North to achieve a capability beyond minimal deterrence. North Korea now might figure that its nuclear weapons programme can enable it to take more risks and coerce its non-nuclear neighbours. Nuclear weapons could not only allow the North to deter the United States but also decouple the United States from its allies, weakening the US commitment of extended deterrence for them. Another possibility is that North Korea will provoke small-scale low-intensity conflicts around the Peninsula, as often suggested by the stability-instability theory.15

Of course, such reasoning might even lead to the speculation that new nuclear powers with non-survivable arsenals might have preventive-strike motivation. However, it needs more theoretical specifications.11’ Failing to specify how often one can identify preventive-strike motivation ex ante, however, their effect on non-survivable arsenal would be unfalsifiable and is hard to apply to the case of North Korea.1' Instead, new nuclear powers are more likely to learn that there are limits to nuclear coercion, and nuclear weapons are not good for strategic aggrandisement.18

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