THINK of North Korea as a liberation movement with unfinished business—the reunification of Korea—and you have the surest guide to explain its past actions and likely future behaviour. It is vital to keep this in mind, as President Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in claim success in reducing the threat from North Korea.
Summits between enemies like Trump and Kim Jong-un, and Kim and Moon, may grab attention as firsts and breakthroughs. But they do not signal a shift in the North’s ambitions. Rather, they fit into patterns of tactical manoeuvring that Pyongyang has engaged in for decades to meet short-term goals. This is especially necessary for a regime like North Korea which sees itself as an insurgency pitted against a superior occupying force like the US.
This essay appears in the March edition of Quadrant.
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North Korea is one of the few successful Stalinist dictatorships. In a small, compact country with a manageable population, the founder, Kim Il-sung, was able to wipe out all his opponents and opposing factions in the first ten years of his rule. His successors, chosen for their ruthlessness, have been able to ensure the loyalty and obedience of the North’s Stalinist party organisation, the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP), both to them personally and to their vision of a unified state. The North’s state apparatus, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is a shadow, even less well-formed than other Leninist countries. It has no independent existence. The premier and cabinet ministers are all senior members of the ruling KWP. They carry out administrative functions decided and overseen by the party.
Former leader and son of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, had no time for the state apparatus at all. He headed the supreme military council of the party and nothing else. Years would go by without the so-called parliament, the supreme people’s assembly, ever meeting. Elections, as they call them, went unheld. Premiers and cabinets rotated regularly, usually taking the fall for some unresourced policy initiative that had inevitably failed. The present Kim, Kim Jong-un, has observed the forms more than his father, but not much. As with his father and grandfather, his power-base is in the army and the party.
For the Kim family and the loyal elite around them, this has worked very well. In fact for a broken-back regime, North Korea is highly resilient. It is among the world’s most stable regimes. It shows no signs of cracking. It has been subject to none of the upheavals its neighbours, China and Russia, have undergone over past decades. Not even its man-made famine in the 1990s, which many thought would spell the regime’s destruction, put a dint in the Kim family’s grip on the country.
For all the reporting of the Kims’ eccentricities, a regime meeting those key performance indicators is not likely to be the irrational, suicidal or unpredictable comic-opera outfit of popular reporting. Quite the reverse.
In the North Korean worldview, US troops occupy the southern half of the DPRK. All Koreans are citizens of this state, including the 48 million in the South, if they only knew it. (And on the other side, the North’s 22 million are all citizens of the Republic of Korea, too.) Because the US military presence is too big to confront head on, the North can only employ guerrilla-force tactics, just as China did against the occupying Japanese. Patriarch Kim Il-sung, when exiled from Japan-held Korea, joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and participated in the CCP’s takeover of the mainland. This gave Kim deep insights into how to pursue guerrilla warfare against the occupying Americans, which he has passed down to his two successors, both carefully chosen chips off the old block. Ever since being thwarted of victory by the US in the Korean War, North Korea has been in guerrilla-war mode, on a perpetual war-footing, and always on the alert for strategic or tactical opportunity.
It probes and harries where the enemy might be weak—especially the more exposed South Korean forces. It falls back when under pressure, but all the while constantly testing resolve and morale. So after some successful outrage, such as the 1976 axe-murders in the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between the two sides, or the 2012 sinking of a South Korean naval vessel, the Chonan, when the giant rouses itself in response, the North will fall back and make itself a small target. In 1976, US soldiers attempted to prune some trees obscuring the view from one of their observation posts. All was done according to the terms of the 1953 armistice. In response North Korean troops moved in and hacked to death several on the US side. To make a point, the US subsequently deployed the aircraft carrier Midway to the region, and flew squadrons of B52s over the peninsula, while it pruned the trees. The North did nothing in the face of overwhelming force. But it had a further measure of how much it could get away with.
Patience and perseverance have been essential to the North’s strategy. They have had to be. For the chances have been low that the US would leave the peninsula since the Korean War ended in 1953. But a few seemed to present themselves over the years. Militant student opposition to the tough South Korean regimes of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan gave the North hope in earlier years that chaos would overtake the southern half and force the US out. But the headline chaos of student protest masked a stable, conservative population benefiting from the economic growth of the Park and Chun years.
Kim Il-sung was hopeful after the US withdrawal from Vietnam in 1973 that US demoralisation might extend to the peninsula. Jimmy Carter’s partial withdrawal from the South gave him heart. Ever loath to travel outside his borders, Kim nevertheless did the rounds of Moscow and Peking seeking support for a renewed invasion. But their concerns had moved on. The wider strategic balance had changed. Moscow knew better than to provoke Washington so blatantly, especially while Peking was pursuing an anti-Soviet coalition with the US.
This preoccupation with reunification explains why all predictions out of China and elsewhere over the years—that the North is interested in economic reform—have been wrong. We are hearing again, mainly out of Seoul, that economic engagement will convert the North from its aggressive ways. It was popular policy from the 1990s among Western countries to engage with Pyongyang in the post-Cold-War belief that we could show it the benefits of openness and reform and draw it out. The North played along. It even enacted an impressive-sounding foreign-investment law, and designated the port of Najin as a special economic zone, just like Shenzhen near Hong Kong. Why not, it could reason. Who knew who would be gullible enough to put good money down? It had worked well in the 1970s when international financial institutions and private banks had gone in. All, including the ANZ here, eventually had to write off the loans they had made. I remember in the early 1980s looking after an ANZ representative transiting Peking en route to Pyongyang to negotiate a settlement of the North’s default. It was a forlorn mission.
But despite its foreign-investment laws, the North had no money for infrastructure to support industrial development, and no one gullible enough to borrow from now. International financial institutions demanded too much information before they’d look at helping out, information Pyongyang regarded as a state secret. But then, whenever it has to make hard decisions on guns and butter, the guns come first. Kim Jong-il’s policy throughout his rule was songun, army first. His less ideological son has allowed a softening of tough collectivisation policies, and diverted some foreign earnings to luxuries for the lucky reliable classes in the capital, Pyongyang. But the change is slight. For North Korea’s hardheads, putting the economy first would be like Britain embarking on the welfare state before defeating Hitler.
So not for Pyongyang the pragmatic pursuit of growth like China. China’s party leaders have postponed their goal of incorporating Taiwan, in the interests of building an economy that might sustain a challenge to US security guarantees for the island. For Pyongyang prosperity must await completion of the primary task. Indeed, if you point out how putting economic prosperity first has transformed the South into the world’s eleventh-largest economy, you’ll meet only scorn. Officials have told me how the North shouldered the hardships of national unification while the comprador South grew soft feeding parasitically off its colonial master, the US. The North remained faithful through it all to the destiny of the one pure Korean race, which it had a sacred responsibility to unify again. This commitment to racial purity adds a further nasty dimension to the North.
The North Koreans have paid a high price for their leaders’ strategic commitment. The economy barely ticks over. As you move further away from Pyongyang, those few foreigners who get to go out there, like Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) officials, will tell you of scarce food, unpaved roads suitable only for ox-carts, no electrification, and primitive shelter, for themselves as much as for the locals. The population are at least an inch shorter than their kin in South Korea, and show many of the effects of malnutrition. Their welfare over seven decades has paled before the ambition of the Kims to preside over a unified Korea.
Paradoxically for a country whose first priority is war, armed-forces’ preparedness has suffered, too. Since the Cold War, the bankrupt Russians have been in no position or mood to give military equipment away. Chinese defence salesmen are pretty hard-headed, too. And Xi Jinping hasn’t been too sympathetic to North Korean requests while it has held out against him personally. North Korea’s emphasis on the battlefield made it a tricky ally for China, once China shifted its priority to the economy after Mao. Nevertheless, throughout all this deprivation, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) has shown surprising ingenuity and resourcefulness in submarine-building, drones and cyber capabilities. Guaranteed budget priority helps, of course, funded by healthy arms sales to like-minded regimes in Syria, Iran and Africa. But the quality gap in conventional arms is still cavernous between South and North forces.
Anywhere else a policy that had failed over seventy years might be ripe for reassessment. But North Korea has nowhere else to go. It has lost the economic race to the South. A conversion to economic reform would be an admission of defeat. The South’s economic might would be overwhelming, destabilising the regime and threatening, as with Germany, reunification on the South’s terms, rather than the North’s.
Besides in the Kims’ mind, the policy will one day succeed, as long as the country retains its ideological commitment and its war-fighting capability. The strategic balance will change at some point. It worked for the North Vietnamese. The North’s strategy bears many similarities to the North Vietnamese communists’: first, rely on its neighbouring guarantor, China, to threaten intervention if the enemy comes too close to China’s borders, as China did in 1950s Korea. Chou En-lai similarly warned the US during the Vietnam War. Second, wear the enemy down. After wrangling with China in Korea, and by proxy in Vietnam, the US knows how sensitive China is to great powers near its border, and is wary of a further encounter on land in China’s backyard. In Korea it’s taking frustratingly longer than Vietnam for the US to lose heart. That’s because the US interest in Japan’s security has always been greater than in South-East Asian security. Japan could not feel secure with the peninsula in hostile hands. But in Pyongyang’s worldview, a US exit will happen one day.
As well, for the type of leader that gets to the top of parties like the KWP, the struggle is almost as fulfilling as final victory. Mao didn’t know what to do with himself after victory in 1949. So he channelled his aggression into struggling against his colleagues. North Vietnamese communist leaders admitted after years of economic mismanagement after the fall of Saigon that they were better at war than reconstruction. Pol Pot seemed just as happy as a guerrilla leader again, when the Vietnamese drove him back to the maquis in 1979.
For any other country as isolated as the North, deprived of bilateral or international economic aid, its economy teetering on the verge of collapse, technologically backward, its armed forces lagging further behind its enemy in the South and confronting the overwhelming military power of the US, it would be rational to conclude that such a country couldn’t now be interested in offence. Its leader must know that and just be focused on survival. It feels insecure and threatened in the face of superior US forces and needs reassurance. The North’s few remaining apologists will spin this regime-survival line, especially China. It’s a beguiling narrative, which appeals to Western logic. It might have some force if the US did threaten the North, if it hadn’t had to return to the peninsula in 1950 to defend the South from attack.
But survival in the face of an overwhelming threat is a fatuous explanation. What regime is not bent on its own survival? True, the regime is paranoid, and in a clandestine party like the KWP plots and threats are everywhere. Still, it’s not a sufficient explanation of motivation and action. A regime in survival mode would not behave the way the North does. Its hostile actions are no different from any since the truce in 1953 when, far more powerful than the South, it posed a credible threat. It was lashing out then, and still is. A regime bent just on survival wouldn’t as recently as 2012 provoke the other side by torpedoing one of its naval vessels, or by barraging with artillery islands near the capital, Seoul. Nor would it be seeking in the more recent past to provoke naval clashes over sea border delineations in the Western Sea. It is constantly probing for vulnerabilities in the enemy’s defences. It has become harder to find these in the recent past, as the South, the easiest target, has hardened its defences. But that is just a reason to show a softer side, as now. It might lower the enemy’s guard.
Militarily, an insecure regime focused on survival wouldn’t have, among the world’s largest contingent of special forces, an offensive capability. Nor would it have its forces arrayed forward, ready to take advantage of any development in the South that looked advantageous. Rather, a regime under threat would have its forces hunkered down in defensive positions preserving themselves intact for the expected enemy attack.
But it’s dangerous, not just fatuous, to identify survival fear on the North’s part as the key. It makes the US military presence the problem on the peninsula. It feeds the contention that we could quickly reassure the North and bring about peace by the US’s withdrawal from the peninsula. Washington tried that once—in 1950. Soon after, the North invaded. Weakness is a provocation, as Stalin said. And next time round the North would have nuclear-tipped missiles.
While the Kims wait for US demoralisation, they can count it a success that they have been able to make the peninsula in everyone’s mind not a function of strategic relations between China and the US, but a struggle between their obscure country—population 22 million—and the superpower US. In fact China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) kept the North alive when US-led UN troops had all but obliterated it. The PLA drove UN/US forces back to the thirty-eighth parallel. China has sustained the regime through seventy years of blockades and sanctions, especially since the Soviet Union fell. The North has annexed all the credit for itself of driving the US out.
More properly, the problem is a local one, between Pyongyang and its opposite number Seoul, kept alive by wider US-China tensions. Solve the US-China relationship one way or another and the Korean Peninsula will resolve itself.
The North has been able to maintain this charade, of course, because China lets it. For it suits China to remain on the sideline, a seemingly disinterested party which claims only limited influence over Pyongyang. (But see below.) It helps to make Washington look like the problem, and show it’s out of place in the region. China helps this perception along with a regular stream of seemingly reasonable proposals for the US to make strategic compromises with the North, for example on ending joint exercises with the South. In return the North might be willing, they hint, to freeze or dismantle its nuclear and missile programs. The US fell for that once. It gave up Team Spirit in 1993, the biggest joint exercise left in the world after the Cold War, to encourage the North to forgo its nuclear-weapons program. It didn’t work. Trump’s agreement to cease current joint exercises with the South is a useful gain for North Korea and China to pocket. Dismantling some of the North’s superseded nuclear-test and missile sites seems a poor return.
At some points in the struggle the North will engage in negotiations, since that’s an extension of war by other means. Tactical flexibility, promises, understandings, even solemnly signed agreements, may yield benefits. The US withdrew its designation of the North as a terrorist state after one such round of smile diplomacy. It ended Team Spirit. It also lifted sanctions on the Kim family’s banker in Macau, Banco Delta Asia, where Kim Jong-il stored much of the family’s foreign exchange.
But somehow or other, ever since the early Red Cross talks in the 1980s, every set of talks—North-South talks off and on over decades, four-party talks in the 1990s, six-party talks later—have broken down, or run into the sand, giving the North a pretext or space to abrogate commitments and undertakings. One might ask whether at least one set of these talks might have progressed if the poor North, feeling threatened and economically besieged, wanted to alleviate the pressure it faced. Even China, with the heft that resources and size bring, knows when to compromise for a bigger prize at the end, for example over retaking Taiwan, or entry into the WTO.
The most egregious of these failed negotiations were the various nuclear talks in the 1990s and early 2000s. The North agreed to dismantle its nuclear-weapons-capable reactor in favour of less threatening light-water reactors from the South. As well it got vast economic aid from the South and Japan, including bunker oil every month, often funded out of Australia’s aid program. The North let us all think it was willing to trade its nuclear-weapons program for economic development. Once again, the West hoped that North Korea’s isolated psychopathic leaders would be responsive to reason. It forgot that the North regards itself as in a state of war. Like any regime that feels under stress, it will do whatever it takes to achieve its ends.
But as became clear later, it agreed to dismantle its old reactor because it was already working on a highly-enriched-uranium program. Once that became evident, talks stalled and Pyongyang was free to do exactly what it intended to do. It argued it was free to, since the West had reneged on its side of the bargain.
South Korea persevered a bit longer under its sunshine policy. Former president Kim Dae-jung, and his successor, Noh Mooh-yun, argued they could show the North the benefits of economic reform and lead to peaceful disarmament and reunification on the peninsula. It set up and heavily subsidised a vast joint-venture industrial park across the DMZ outside the ancient capital on the northern side, Kyongsang.
The South Korean conglomerate Hyundai also financed a resort park at Kumgang mountain in the North. Kumgang holds a special place in Korean culture, for its beauty and as the mythical birthplace of the Korean race. The personality cult in the north claims Kim Il-sung was born there. The site drew hordes of South Korean tourists and earned the North useful foreign exchange. The US went along with these plans, which was curious for a country allegedly bent on the North’s destruction and ready to strike at any moment.
Both projects fell foul of the North’s security priorities. Every time the South behaved in ways which the North objected to, including unflattering comments from its lively press, the North would impose restrictions in Kyongsang, hold up South Korean trucks supplying the factories, or restrict the numbers and movements of South Korean managers.
The North torpedoed the Kumgang collaboration when an over-enthusiastic guard shot dead an unwitting South Korean tourist taking a morning walk along the beach. The North refused to apologise for the potshot at her, or to go ahead with the long-agreed-on joint-investigation procedures for the incident. The project foundered. So did Kyongsang, once the North’s missile and nuclear provocations proved too much for Seoul to ignore. The loss of valuable foreign exchange didn’t faze Pyongyang. These projects had held out some useful united-front opportunities, but weren’t leading to long-term benefit for the unification struggle, and so were dispensable.
After the failure of all these efforts to reach out to the North, it’s a delusion to go on imagining that the North wants what most other countries in its dire economic position would want from talks or bilateral co-operation. So what does it want? Rationally, it can only be what it’s always wanted, unification on its terms. How do nuclear weapons figure in this?
At one level, nuclear weapons are a good short-term investment. They are the poor man’s weapon of choice. They make a country impregnable even as its conventional arms don’t. They’re relatively cheap to develop, and complement the North’s well-developed chemical and biological armoury. That’s the defence rationale. In another sense, why not? In a ruthless warrior state, where the regime doesn’t have to worry about public opinion or public welfare, why not the gold standard of defence? Although they treasure their isolation, the Kims still desire prestige and recognition from an admiring world.
Besides, now they’ve got them, the North’s spokesmen will tell you, the country won’t abandon them. They’re already enshrined in the constitution. They’re not saying that so much at the moment—for tactical reasons. No point getting the US offside before they have to—before, say, the North gets some relief from biting sanctions.
But the regime will tell you in defence of keeping their weapons that countries that have given them up, such as Ukraine and Libya, haven’t lasted long. This is another beguiling argument. But there’s a big difference. Neither Libya nor Ukraine had a neighbouring ally like China to guarantee its security the way the North does. East Germany, a non-nuclear state, fell too. But that was because its security guarantor, the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, had lost its nerve. China’s not in danger of going that way. These days only a full-on attack by the North on South Korea, a suicidal move it wouldn’t contemplate, would provoke the US into full-scale war there again.
The North knows no one is going to attack it, because whoever did would be attacking China. For all the frustration Chinese party spokesmen express about the North, China is in an alliance with North Korea for good strategic reasons. It wants a buffer from foreign forces. Arguments are wrong that buffer states no longer matter in a world with ICBMs. One only has to consider Peking’s rage over the US’s introduction of Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) to the peninsula to know what China thinks about buffer-state obsolescence. It imagines how close the US could put THAAD with no North Korea in between. But a further consideration for China is North Korea’s coastal city of Najin, the only ice-free port abutting China’s old industrial heartland. That can’t be allowed to fall into hostile hands.
For all its bluster, Pyongyang is not going to use nuclear weapons first. The regime is neither suicidal nor irrational. It knows the North would be flattened within hours of a strike. After all, in its many years of existence, it hasn’t taken on the US front-on, or on the US’s terms, for good reasons.
So when at a military disadvantage, peaceful measures have got to figure in the armoury. Mind-bogglingly, the North will tell you it’s committed to a nuclear-free peninsula. This had been the dying legacy of the “eternal president”, Kim Il-sung. Similarly all it would take for peace on the peninsula, and for nuclear disarmament, would be a peace treaty with the US. At present, the North will moan, only an inherently unstable truce holds the two sides apart. It doesn’t matter that it must be the longest-lasting unstable truce in history.
To correct matters, the North will frequently call for peace negotiations. To the unfamiliar, nothing could be more promising or more conciliatory. You can read recent support for this course of action in the authoritative US bimonthly Foreign Affairs. The Trump administration is talking about it. A closer examination of past proposals shows they are, in the North’s view, to be only with the US. No need for the involvement of China, a signatory to the 1953 truce, and certainly no place for the South. Ideally, the North envisages a rerun of the Paris peace talks between the US and North Vietnam. The ROK lives in dread of it—or used to. It’s not in a strong position to insist on participating. At the time of the truce, ROK president Syngman Rhee refused to sign. He feared the long division of the country that would result.
A peace treaty would, in Pyongyang’s reasoning, entail the withdrawal of the US. If the two are no longer in a state of hostilities, what would be the need for the US presence? That clause may not be in the fine print of an agreement, but it’s a central goal. Agitation for withdrawal would soon start up on both sides of the DMZ. Minus US forces, the ROK would have to fear it would last about as long as the doomed Republic of Vietnam. Fortunately for the South till now, these peace proposals haven’t found much traction in Washington. But signs are worrying, as President Trump deprecates his country’s provocative war games, and bemoans costly overseas bases.
Curiously this doesn’t seem to worry South Korea’s President Moon. He’s in the mould of past left-wing presidents, Kim Dae-jung and No Mooh-yun, for whom the illusion of peaceful progress on reunification capped security realities. Though not blind to the North’s ruthlessness, Moon shares a strong strain of thinking among left-leaning Koreans that their country has been throughout history the strategic plaything of outside powers. If only the great powers would leave the peninsula alone, Koreans would be able to work out their own destiny amicably and peacefully. The North plays to this sentiment in its propaganda and united-front work. And as urgent domestic reform becomes more difficult, achieving some cosmetic breakthrough with the North becomes more attractive.
Peking and Pyongyang have always described their relationship as one of lips and teeth. Their strategic goals align: North Korea wants the eventual departure of the US from the peninsula, China wants the US out of its region. Xi Jinping’s impatience with Kim can’t disguise the long-term and deep strategic affinity between the two regimes.
China runs its relationship with the North through the Communist Party, and crucially the army. The diplomatic relationship is incidental. (On official visits to China, I would head off to the international-liaison department, the party’s shadow foreign-affairs and spy outfit, to discuss developments in the North.) This partly explains why Xi hadn’t till recently been able to put much substance behind his frustration with the North’s destabilising antics. Locked in a struggle for supremacy within the party and army at home, Xi hadn’t had the clout to take on the party and army protectors of the North Korea relationship. With the removal of some PLA heavyweights ahead of the party congress last October, in particular four-star General Fang Fenghui, Kim Jong-un was left without militant backers in China.
With Xi now in a position to apply UN sanctions more vigorously against the North, Kim’s defiance soon evaporated. A trip to Peking to make peace with Xi followed soon after. This was also when Kim took China’s advice to make some conciliatory gestures towards the US. China’s sanctions never amounted to a deterrent. Nor does Xi want to bring the North down. He just doesn’t want it causing trouble for him in managing the US for the present. The time will come when North Korea can give full play to its reunification goals. But that can’t be before China is in a position to challenge the US presence in the region.
When or if that day comes, North and South Korea will be left to work out their future between themselves. A South, shorn of US military support, and without nuclear weapons, isn’t going to be in a strong bargaining position against a nuclear-armed North. A larger population, economic resources, and a superior conventional army, won’t avail Seoul much against the ruthlessness of the North. Pyongyang knows it will be in a winning position. It probably won’t even need to threaten to use its weapons of mass destruction.
As long as the US remains willing to treat an attack on its allies as an attack on the US mainland, South Korea can feel secure. So can Japan and the region, and so can we. But credible policy-planners in the US are beginning to talk about off-shore balancing, to downplay the usefulness of overseas bases, and calling for allies to assume more of the defence burden. These calls are bound to raise doubts in leaders’ minds in Seoul and Tokyo. Already serious voices in the South are calling for Seoul to look at nuclear weapons. The logic could become unarguable.
This would complicate China’s ambitions, and Pyongyang’s. It might one day become the only way to deal with a catastrophic consolidation of hegemony in the region by China, and for Seoul to prevent reunification on Pyongyang’s terms.
Peter Rowe has been observing North Korea since he started work in the Australian embassy in Peking in 1978. He spent nine years in Korea, including as ambassador to both the South and North between 2005 and 2009.