North Korea and Its Enablers—A Mounting Threat

Politics World

North Korea has stepped up its testing of nuclear-capable missiles, calling the recent US–South Korea joint military exercises “war provocation.” The author examines the internal and external factors behind the North’s nuclear weapons program, including its evolving relationship with China and Russia.

North Korea conducted a record number of missile launches in 2022, and the pace of testing shows no signs of easing. What are the factors driving and enabling North Korea’s seemingly reckless nuclear and missile development program?

Deterrence and Leverage

The United States and South Korea began conducting large-scale joint military exercises on March 13 this year. The day before the drills began, North Korea’s state media reported that the Central Military Commission had met and adopted “important practical steps for making more effective, powerful, and offensive use of the war deterrent . . . in coping with the present situation in which the war provocations of the US and South Korea are reaching the red line.” Subsequently, North Korea tested several ballistic and cruise missiles, which it claimed could carry nuclear weapons. What does Pyongyang seek to gain from this threatening activity?

The overriding goal, of course, is the survival of the regime—just as it has been ever since the end of the Cold War.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, as the Cold War wound down, North Korea was faced with the loss of vital alliances. In response, Kim Jong-il, the son and eventual successor of Supreme Leader Kim Il-sung, embarked on a new course. Abandoning his father’s vision of a socialist state in which the Workers’ Party of Korea would lead the nation and the military, Kim Jong-il built a highly centralized “military first” system in which he himself—indivisible from the military—directed every aspect of government. One might think of this as a kind of crisis management system designed to guarantee the regime’s survival in the face of internal and external threats.

Kim Jong-il viewed the United States as the biggest of these existential threats, and dealing with it as his top priority. This is why North Korea embarked on a nuclear development program and ultimately acquired nuclear weapons over the fierce objections of the international community. At the time of Kim Jong-il’s death, North Korea had yet to meet the challenge of miniaturizing nuclear weapons and developing a delivery system capable of reaching the United States, but it has made steady progress toward those goals under its third supreme leader, Kim Jong-un.

The ostensible purpose of this activity, then, is to eliminate North Korea’s post–Cold War vulnerability to a US nuclear attack by developing its own nuclear deterrence capability. But the real aim now is leveraging that capability to put its relationship with the United States on a new footing. And Pyongyang regards the US–South Korea joint military exercises as a key indicator of Washington’s attitude toward North Korea. In June 2018, with Seoul’s support, Pyongyang managed to arrange the first-ever summit meeting between the US and North Korean heads of state. As both sides pledged to pursue a “new relationship,” US President Donald Trump agreed to suspend military drills with South Korea. Small wonder Pyongyang places such emphasis on the exercises.

Some analysts insist that North Korea’s main objective is removal of the international sanctions imposed over the years under a series of UN Security Council resolutions. But judging from Pyongyang’s behavior since the February 2019 Hanoi Summit, where bilateral talks broke down, the country’s leaders are less concerned with the sanctions than with the US–South Korea joint exercises. This explains why they saw a need for “important practical steps” in response to the military drills that began on March 13, said to be the biggest joint US–South Korea exercises ever.

The Chinese Brake on Nuclear Testing

Until fairly recently, Pyongyang was probably relying on South Korea to steer US–North Korea relations in a direction consistent with its own goals. The administration of South Korean President Moon Jae-in, which prioritized engagement with North Korea, had proved quite useful in that regard. But Moon’s successor, Yoon Suk-yeol—South Korea’s first conservative president in five years—has made deterrence, not engagement, the core of his policy toward the North. He has taken steps not only to shore up the bilateral alliance with the United States but also to repair the trilateral Japan–South Korea–US security relationship. Aiming for friendlier ties and closer cooperation with Japan, Yoon has floated a plan that could resolve the two countries’ longstanding deadlock over the compensation of Koreans conscripted as forced labor by Japanese companies before and during World War II. Predictably, these moves have elicited a backlash from Pyongyang. It has adopted an increasingly confrontational stance toward the Yook administration and has reacted angrily to signs of growing cooperation among Japan, South Korea, and the United States, as well as to the recent US–South Korea joint military exercises.

With Japan, South Korea, and the United States beefing up bilateral and trilateral cooperation, China’s backing is obviously important to North Korea. But Pyongyang has doubts about Beijing’s reliability. Even amid the open hostility of the US-China talks held in Anchorage in March 2021—soon after US President Joe Biden took office—the two sides singled out North Korea as an area where their interests converged. North Korea is one of the most valuable cards Beijing holds in its relationship with Washington, which remains China’s top foreign-policy priority. A concerted pressure campaign by the United States and China could be a disaster for North Korea.

In 2017, after North Korea conducted its sixth and most recent nuclear test and launched an ICBM capable of reaching the continental United States, Beijing joined with the United States in approving extremely tough sanctions against North Korea. Pyongyang is doubtless anxious to prevent a repetition of that fiasco.

In January 2021, at the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, Pyongyang adopted a plan to bolster national defense, including development of tactical nuclear weapons and missiles with multiple nuclear warheads. Fully implementing this plan will involve additional nuclear testing, and it is widely believed that preparations for a seventh test are well advanced. But North Korea is proceeding cautiously on this front, most likely in deference to China. Beijing has consistently called for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and has criticized North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The Chinese are also said to be concerned about the environmental and geological impact of North Korean nuclear tests, which are conducted near the two countries’ border. Pressure from China may have intensified in 2022, when Xi Jinping was aiming for a precedent-breaking third term at the helm. All these circumstances seem to have convinced North Korea to refrain from nuclear testing for the time being. But the international environment has changed.

Russia as Enabler

The main catalyst for change was the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. North Korea was among the first to announce its support for Russia, and it joined with only four other countries in opposing the March 2 General Assembly resolution condemning the invasion, even as China abstained. Russia obviously appreciates such support and can be expected to reciprocate.

Presumably relying on Moscow’s backing (while still taking care not to antagonize Beijing), North Korea subsequently fired a series of nuclear-capable missiles, including its newest and most powerful ICBM, the Hwasong-17. In May 2022, Russia vetoed a US-sponsored Security Council resolution to strengthen sanctions on North Korea. (China also exercised its veto power on this occasion.) In this way, North Korea is rushing to take advantage of Russia’s situation and establish a new cold-war order on the Korean Peninsula.

Dire Economic Straits

On the economic front, North Korea is experiencing severe hardship. The pain caused by UN sanctions had already become chronic when trade with China was suspended in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, greatly exacerbating the situation.

It has been some time since government rationing—a key feature of North Korean socialism—functioned effectively, and the real economy has become heavily reliant on black markets and other informal systems. Apparently, the government has been supplying such markets with stockpiled goods in an effort to keep prices under control. But these emergency measures have their limits. With the world recovering from the pandemic, Pyongyang is working hard to reopen trade with China in hopes of rebuilding the real economy. At its plenary meeting at the end of 2022, the WPK Central Committee reaffirmed the policy of strengthening North Korea’s defense, but another plenum was convened just two months later, in February 2023, with a focus on agricultural policy—testimony to North Korea’s economic difficulties.

North Korea is now in the third year of its latest five-year economic plan, adopted in January 2021 at the aforementioned Eighth WPK Congress. While strengthening defense remains a top priority for the government, it must also rebuild the economy if the regime is to survive over the long term. For that, it needs China and Russia.

Preserving the Royal Bloodline

A separate issue that arose amid the flurry of missile launches that began in 2022 is the matter of succession. During this time, Kim Jong-un appeared with his young daughter at key launch sites and a military parade, fueling speculation that she was being groomed as the next supreme leader.

Kim Jong-un is the third head of a hereditary dynasty going back to “Great Leader” Kim Il-sung, and it is taken for granted that only a direct descendent in the so-called Mount Paektu bloodline can accede to that supreme office in the future.

The daughter in question (one of three children, it is said) may well qualify as a candidate for succession, but at this point it makes more sense to view her appearances in military settings as symbolic, a warm gesture of appreciation toward the army by a member of the “royal” family. In either case, those appearances do underscore the ongoing importance of pedigree and suggest that the government will continue to stress the Mount Paektu bloodline as a means of bolstering its legitimacy and ensuring the regime’s continued survival.

Japan’s Diplomatic Role

The threat from North Korea is more real than ever before. Previously, Pyongyang insisted that its nuclear weapons were solely for the purpose of self-defense, but recently Kim Jong-un has hinted at the possibility of preemptive use. At last year’s plenary session of the WPK Central Committee, for example, he said, “The first mission of our nuclear capability is to deter war, but in the event that deterrence fails, it will perform its second mission,” adding that “the second mission is something other than self-defense.” Moreover, a growing number of North Korea’s frequent missile launches have been classified as military drills, as opposed to tests of new weapons systems.

To counter this growing threat, it is essential to step up security cooperation between Japan, South Korea, and the United States. But it is also necessary to revive the role of the UN Security Council, which has fallen into dysfunction since Russia invaded Ukraine. For this to happen, international society must regain the support of China and Russia, on whose backing Pyongyang depends. Up until now the Security Council has always acted unanimously—which is to say, with China’s and Russia’s assent—in condemning nuclear testing and ICBM launches by North Korea. We cannot allow China or Russia to exercise their veto power next time around.

To this end, it is necessary to lobby China and Russia vigorously and patiently, and Japan has an important role to play in this regard. Tokyo’s relations with Beijing and Moscow have been strained of late, but we have many tools at our disposal, and we must use every available avenue to secure China and Russia’s cooperation in countering the North Korean threat.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and his daughter observe the practice launch of a nuclear-capable tactical ballistic missile on March 19, 2023, in a photo distributed by the Korean Central News Agency on March 20. © AFP/Jiji.)

North Korea nuclear weapons missiles