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North Korea: busting common myths

  • Written by  Markus Bell & Marco Milani
  • Published in Opinions
North Korean tanks on a parade through Pyongyang North Korean tanks on a parade through Pyongyang Jack Hoyes
16 Mar
Would North Korea give up its nuclear weapons? Would an early ‘bloody nose’ attack halt its ambitions? Are economic sanctions the answer? Dr Markus Bell and Dr Marco Milani bust some common myths surrounding the current state of North Korea

Recent diplomatic developments on the Korean peninsula have gone a long way to defusing regional tensions. North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, is expected to travel to the southern side of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing North from South Korea, for an inter-Korean summit in late April. In addition, US President Donald Trump is awaiting confirmation of a meeting with Kim, slated for late May.

By contrast, in 2017 North Korea carried out 20 ballistic missile tests, including three intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches capable of hitting the US mainland. Additionally, it tested three nuclear devices in 2016 and 2017, including one it claimed was a thermonuclear device. As the build up to the proposed talks continues, a reading of North Korea’s recent history does suggest that both the US and South Korea need to focus on setting realistic goals, rather than immediately demanding a nuclear free Korean peninsula – something that North Korea is unlikely to agree on.

In the lead up to the talks, it is therefore useful to review three false assumptions regularly discussed by policy makers and in the media regarding how best to deal with North Korea.

Myth #1: North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons

The debate regarding North Korea’s nuclear program and its intentions is divided between scholars and policy makers who believe North Korea is an irrational, unpredictable actor, and those who believe it’s actually calculating, rational and working to maintain the status quo.

The idea that North Korea will use its nuclear arsenal against the US has gained a foothold of late for several reasons. First, because it chimes with the image of a rogue regime, led by a crazy dictator; second because hawkish commentators regard the nuclear program not as a guarantee for regime survival but as a means for North Korea to forcibly unify the peninsula; and third because North Korea allows – indeed, promotes – the idea that it is ready and willing to use all options available.

But North Korea is not going to start a nuclear war, nor is it going to give up its nuclear weapons, because its primary concern is regime survival.

If North Korea were to suddenly launch an attack on the US mainland or any one of the chain of US military bases reaching from Hawai’i to Guam, to Okinawa, to South Korea, the US would immediately respond with attacks from its own arsenal, with conventional or nuclear weapons. The result would likely be the obliteration of the regime. North Korea knows that it could not survive a protracted US attack.

The elites in the Korean Worker’s Party and at the top of the military – Kim and his hangers on – are rational actors for whom regime survival is a must. The nuclear weapons that the country now wields provide stability, but not if it actually has to use them. For North Korea, the purpose of nuclear weapons and missiles is purely deterrence.

postersPosters depicting the power of the North Korean people are commonplace within the country (Image: Attila Jandi)

Myth #2: A limited strike will punish North Korea for its weapons program

In September last year, Trump took aim at North Korea’s nuclear program, saying ‘Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself’ and that the US would ‘totally destroy North Korea’. Commentators suggested that the US should launch a limited strike on targets of symbolic value in North Korea, for example, a missile launch pad. The idea would be to punch Kim Jong Un in the metaphorical nose with an attack that would remind Kim who is in charge.

But a ‘bloody nose’ strategy wouldn’t work in the case of North Korea, for two main reasons. First, the difficulty would be finding the right balance between letting Kim know that a US attack is a firm telling off for misbehaving, and Kim misunderstanding that his country is actually under attack. The limited strike strategy, effective in countries like Syria weakened by seven years of civil war, is extremely dangerous if applied to North Korea, which has a strong and stable regime, a powerful military system and, of course, nuclear weapons.

Second, Trump assumes that Kim would passively take a ‘bloody nose’ without losing face in the eyes of the North Korean political and military leadership with whom he surrounds himself. Kim Jong Un is clearly the man at the top and he has spent the last six years consolidating his position through a series of political purges. But even a fearsome dictator has various factions nipping at his toes and has to secure some degree of legitimacy in front of the elites and the population.

Kim may not have the choice of not responding to a ‘bloody nose’, because it could cause others around him to see him as weak. A North Korea analyst put it nicely when he said that Kim’s decisions aren’t just based on what he thinks the United States will do. They’re also based on ‘what the people guarding his villa, running his security services, and overseeing the military will do. And as awesome as the power of the United States is, that power isn’t the one guarding his door when he sleeps.’

In sum, the idea that a ‘bloody nose’ attack will put North Korea in its place is a dangerous miscalculation because it relies on North Korea recognising it as a limited strike, and because it assumes that Kim Jong Un answers to no one.

trumpUS President Donald Trump ridiculed Kim Jong Un during a speech to the UN in 2017 (Image: A Katz)

Myth #3: Sanctions (alone) will force North Korea to the negotiatiNG table

If it is not possible to punish North Korea by launching a limited attack, then perhaps economic sanctions are a way of doing it without risking war?

UN sanctions target North Korean international money transfers, North Korean workers abroad, the supply of oil and the export of gold, titanium, coal, iron, rare minerals, seafood and textiles. The purpose of these sanctions is to force it to the negotiating table. Trump’s strategy of ‘maximum pressure’ has placed great emphasis on the international sanctions path. But economic sanctions alone will not have the effect they’re designed for.

Economic sanctions require the full cooperation of the international community to work. The weak link in the chain is China, which accounts for 90 per cent of North Korea’s trade. However compliant China may seem to have been in the last year, since the international community tightened the screws on North Korea, trade, to varying extents, has continued to flow across the Sino-Korean border and through ship-to-ship transfers on the high seas. China will never allow sanctions to bring North Korea to its knees because it fears regime collapse and instability in the region more than it does a nuclear capable North Korea. The long-term perspective of a united Korea, with US troops up against its northeastern border, is even more alarming for Beijing.

Sanctions also have a limited impact on a state that is willing to let its people starve to protect the regime. If the 1990s North Korean famine – in which hundreds of thousands of people purportedly died – taught us anything, it is that the elites will cut off the people in order to save themselves. Consequently, economic sanctions are going to have an impact, but they’re going to impact in the wrong areas: namely ordinary people and low-level elites will suffer the most.

Another factor is that North Korea is not reliant on global trade networks. The patronage system that helps the elite stay in power is actually helped by sanctions. Sanctions are designed to strangle a country’s economy by stifling the competitiveness of its industry. But what happens is that the state becomes more powerful as it is relied upon to award monopoly contracts to chosen elites. After decades of sanctions, North Korean economic actors have found ways not only to survive, but even prosper and take advantage of the sanctions under which they live. In North Korea, the nouveau riche benefitting from this situation are known as Dongju. They run cross-border trading and smuggling operations, and the state gets its cut.

In other words, international sanctions have cut off more legitimate avenues of economic activity, but have been insufficiently effective in discouraging the development of North Korea’s nuclear program. Sanctions targeted at the nuclear and missile program can be part of a comprehensive strategy to address the complexity of North Korea’s security issue in the region, but any such strategy must also include dialogue and economic engagement.

nk soldiersNorth Korean soldiers at a military parade in Pyongyang (Image: Astrelok)


Recent developments on the Korean peninsula are important stepping-stones towards ensuring what has been a long, if at times tenuous, peace in Northeast Asia. At the very least, it is significant that both US and North Korea are considering diplomatic approaches rather than high-risk, limited attacks or economic sanctions that are undermined by imperfect implementation. In addition, South Korea has demonstrated itself capable of taking a leading role in inter-Korean relations and playing a key role in facilitating dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang.

In the lead up to the inter-Korean summit and the proposed Trump-Kim meeting, we need to temper our expectations as to what will be achieved. If both meetings go ahead, they are not going to lead to North Korea denuclearising. The obstacles to this end are numerous, starting with the very definition of what denuclearisation means in practice for the different parties.

Under Kim Jong Un, the nuclear program has taken different meanings for the North Korean regime, as a guarantee for survival, but also as a means for internal legitimacy and leverage in negotiations. Kim’s opening could be the starting point of a process of dialogue and mutual understanding, both of which are crucial to prevent war and ease tensions. But the US, South Korea, and the other regional actors must be patient and design a comprehensive strategy aimed at addressing all these aspects of the nuclear program.

Dr Markus Bell is Assistant Professor in Korean and Japanese Studies, based at the School of East Asian Studies, University of Sheffield. He is particularly interested in the significance of North Korean migrants’ memories of movement and resettlement in shaping a diasporic identity, and is currently working on a book based on his research in Korea and Japan titled The Impossible Gift: Memories of Migration to and from North Korea, under contract with Berghahn Books and due in 2019.

Dr Marco Milani is Postdoctoral Fellow at the Dornsife College – Korean Studies Institute, University of Southern California. He is currently working on a book based on his research titled The Evolution of Inter-Korean Cooperation: History, Theory and Practice.

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