Australia/Israel Review

New Leadership and Old Tricks from Pyongyang

Mar 27, 2012 | Nir Reichental

New Leadership and Old Tricks from Pyongyang

Nir Reichental

Imagine the following terrifying scenario for the international community – a rogue, impoverished country armed to the teeth with doomsday weaponry, a regime infamous for its belligerence, yet one whose perceptions of reality and decision-making processes are a mystery. Let us further imagine such a ‘hermit kingdom’ with the capacity to inflict the gravest catastrophe on the world yet ruled by an unknown and inexperienced young leader in his twenties. 

Unfortunately, North Korea is a reality. Moreover, the dangers created by the regime in Pyongyang are not confined to its immediate neighbourhood, but diffuse across the globe. They are significant concern even for Israel, halfway around the world.

The North Korean regime is also well known for an unpredictability which can only compete with its opacity. In early March, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a surprise announcement that North Korea had agreed to halt its nuclear weapons program and to place them under international inspection in return for food aid. One would expect that this agreement would be widely applauded; however, in light of North Korea’s record of unreliability. it was received with suspicion and after a short time, Pyongyang announced plans to violate the deal by launching a long-range missile. Even Secretary Clinton, the main sponsor of the agreement, cautioned that it is merely “a modest first step in the right direction.”

What Does Pyongyang Want?

The main challenge to be tackled before achieving a nuclear-free North Korea is to understand what its regime really wants: nuclear weapons? A normalisation process with America? Unification with South Korea? Or is North Korea completely irrational, so it is impossible to predict the regime’s moves? The perplexing situation of North Korea is a matter of wide discussion among Korea’s experts and within major governments and defence establishments. Although there are deep disagreements about the right approach with regards to North Korea, there is a consensus on the difficulty for external observers to attempting to comprehend the mindset of the decision-makers in Pyongyang.

North Korea is a remnant of the communist empire which collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s. Time stopped turning in North Korea which remains a miniature Soviet regime. The North Korean elite looks at the world of the 21st century from a point of view developed in the 1950s and from their “preserved-in-aspic” reality without many prominent elements of modern advanced societies – such as fast food and private cars, private ownership and information-diffusion among its own people.

Lately, the ambiguity and uncertainty surrounding Pyongyang has increased dramatically with a new leader anointed in the only communist country with a ruling dynasty. Kim Jong-un, the young son of the former leader Kim Jong-il, who officially succeeded his father in last December, is no less a mystery than his homeland. There are all sorts of speculations about who really holds the reins behind the scenes as the new leader goes through a brief initiation period (his father Kim Jong-il experienced a much more thorough preparation process). Young Kim is encircled with the regime’s old guard of military generals, party technocrats and family relatives.

Nevertheless, the consistency of the regime’s strategy is apparent even without significant knowledge about its internal decision-making processes. Like East Germany during the Cold War, the North Korean regime has only the uniqueness of its “system” to justify the division of the Korean Peninsula into two countries instead of one Korean nation. This “system” sanctifies the cult of personality surrounding the ruling Kim dynasty; the armed forces’ first priority in the national resources allocation; and the principal of self-reliance in a centralised state-run economy.

Hence, in a recent article in Foreign Policy, Professor Andrei Lankov, a renowned academic expert on North Korea, observed that the North Korean regime is trapped in an inevitable dead end. Lankov explained that (like in the relationship between East and West Germany) the success story of prosperous South Korea delegitimises the existence of North Korea and its “system” – which has failed miserably, with most of the country’s industry paralysed, a third of the population dependent on humanitarian aid, and hundreds of thousands have reported to have died from malnutrition. The bottom line is that North Korea cannot break free from its desperate situation without abandoning its “system” – which in turn is its only rationale for existence. In other words, if North Korea opens up to the international community, as China has done since the 1980s, and removed its totalitarian measures of control (particularly blocking out external information and all contacts with foreigners for its citizens), the current Orwellian “1984”-style regime would cease to exist.

If this is not enough, North Korea’s main foe is none other than the United States, the superpower of our time, and Pyongyang seriously aspires to defeat this arch-enemy. As long as Western liberal democracies hold dominance in international affairs, North Korea will risk disintegration. The main objective of the North Korean ruling elite is survival of their current system of government and therefore only one course is open for them, regardless of the identity of the Kim in power: They must hold on and wait for a dramatic change, such as the rise to global dominance of their benefactor, China, and the demise of the US.

Nuclear Strategy: Blackmail and Proliferation

North Korea’s long-term efforts to develop nuclear weapons and its constant violations of agreements (in 1994 and 2007) which offered normalisation in exchange for nuclear dismantlement, served the regime’s survival instincts. North Korea’s “blackmail policy” paradoxically places its enemies into the position of acting as supporters of North Korea’s survival: the US and its Asian allies provide critical economic assistance in return for North Korea’s refraining from jeopardising regional instability. Like past nuclear agreements with the rogue state, the latest agreement announced in March seems to fit in clearly with this pattern of “blackmail” and does not include any irreversible steps to prevent North Korea’s future nuclear development.

Despite the fact that the North Korean crisis is thousands of miles away from the Middle East, it has direct effects on Israel’s national security. Wikileaks exposed that Defence Minister Ehud Barak and other Israeli officials warned their American counterparts that North Korea’s success in achieving nuclear weapons in spite of US diplomacy and international sanctions became a model for other rogue regimes, first and foremost Iran. Harvard proliferation expert Professor Graham Allison concisely lamented in the New York Times: “When the history of this era is written the scoreboard will be: Kim 8 (nuclear bombs – NR), Bush 0”.

Furthermore, North Korea’s perception of a “zero-sum game” with the US almost automatically allies Pyongyang with any country which is also ready to defy American global dominancy using radical means. Unfortunately for Israel, most of these countries are in the Middle East region and are known to have forged strong relations with North Korea over many years. North Korea provided Middle Eastern countries military assistance, including vital help to Iran in developing a missile system capable of striking Israel with a nuclear warhead (once one becomes available).

The negative implications on Israel’s security from North Korea’s support for Middle East countries even led to an Israeli attampt at direct dialogue with Pyongyang in the 1990s – which led nowhere.

Today, Israel is particularly concerned by a declared North Korean threat to assist foreign countries in developing nuclear weapons – a threat only worsened by Pyongyang’s desperate situation, both economically and politically, which encourages the regime to sell its technology for badly-needed hard currency, without worrying about any potential international consequences. This threat includes possible assistance in delivering stockpiles of fissile material, as well as knowledge of techniques for manufacturing the explosive devices needed to achieve military nuclear capabilities.

The North Korean attempt to construct a secret nuclear reactor in Syria (which was destroyed in an air raid in 2007) was a clear sign that North Korea is prepared to act as a “WMD” supermarket, without worrying about the consequences of its actions. 

Neither the untried new North Korean leader, nor the newly announced nuclear agreement appear likely to have much impact on the potential severe implications of nuclear North Korea’s dangerous behaviour – to the detriment of both Israel’s national security and global nuclear non-proliferation efforts.

Nir Reichental is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge and a lecturer at Haifa University specialising in Asian nuclear and security issues. © Australia/Israel Review, all rights reserved.


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