Summary: This essay makes the case that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is a rational actor. However, everything about his background and unique perspective will cause him to see the world differently from the way Westerners do. His actions are motivated with his regime’s survival & state control, economic sustenance, domestic stability as well as international legitimacy (right to exist). It offers a flashback to the early 2000’s to illustrate with a hypothetical, the regime’s decision-making process. And with historical perspective explains why in 2021 the situation in North Korea is what it is.
In trying to understand North Korea’s foreign policy, it is easy for a Westerner to slip into systematic difficulties which lead to misinterpreting North Korean intentions. We may say “Oh Kim Jong-un ….. he’s really just like us… only Asian….” On the other hand, we may say “he’s just plain crazy!”. Both approaches are not without their merits, but they also carry the danger of naivete. It is important to also consider a third approach; that Kim Jong-un is quite rational, but that everything about his background and perspective will cause him to see the world very, very differently from the way we do.
His reasoning may well be “Regarding lives lost due to famine/inefficiencies and the corona pandemic: We greatly honor and respect those who’ve perished to preserve the nation in these perilous times. Our mortal enemies are gathering around, led by the U.S., which has invaded our country …supported by Japan, which has invaded our proud nation many, many times”.
We must hark back to the time after WWII when ideas, words, ideology mattered. In important ways, North Korea is more a feudal state rather than a socialist one. The brutal Japanese occupation of Korea was preceded by the home-grown Yi dynasty; 500 years of the purest Confucian state the world has ever seen. North Korea has inherited that style of filial loyalty, and allegiance to ‘Dear Respected’ Kim Jong-un is strong. That is the background for North Korea’s present actions – occupation by Japan until 1945, hard-won independence, a devastating war which has never officially ended, and a world of hostile enemies. Kim Jong-un is still at war in his own mind. Some U.S. allies have said he is crazy because of his human rights deficiencies or apathy to the number that languish and die every year. But remember, in times of war, as they view them, standards are different. Sacrifices for the nation are to be expected. Kim Jong-un rules in a country which has had 600 years of Confucian order and loyalty to authority. Regardless of his problems, we should not expect that he is about to fall from power.
Kim Jong-un is a rational actor. While North Korean citizens may be insulated from world affairs, his regime has similar access to information as any other nation. His approach to interpreting world affairs should be no different than others’, but North Korea has quite different national and regime interests. These interests include the regime’s survival & state control, economic sustenance, domestic stability as well as international legitimacy (right to exist).
The world has changed much in the last 20 years and yet extraordinarily little has changed in North Korea. North Korean objectives in the early part of this century, as in 2021, included steps to enhance external and internal security, to deter U.S. aggression and to maintain South Korean, Chinese, Russian opposition to a U.S. attack. It wanted then as it does now to acquire tools and resources for economic development including food and fuel, technology transfer, removal of economic sanctions and to receive infrastructure aid. It also wanted then, as it does now to expand trade, investments and normalize relations with key powers without intrusions on its sovereignty. Faced with an increasingly hostile U.S. it then had to make tradeoffs between continuing nuclear development, whether to publicly declare its nuclear status (which it did subsequently), to negotiate and decide between which concessions to seek and those to make. It also needed to make the difficult decision that in the event an agreement was reached – ought it to cheat or not? Deep down, it makes sense to assume, North Korea still wants a true, ratified peace treaty which a) commits signatories to non-aggression, especially nuclear, b) commitments to forswear clandestine interference in its internal affairs, c) formally ends the Korean War, d) includes apology and reparations from Japan for a brutal colonial regime.
Flashback to Early 2000’s
Flashback to where our story begins. In January 2002, President Bush included North Korea in his “axis of evil” and left little doubt that his policy included serious thought to unprovoked attack, if needed as was rumored with small nuclear weapons. The North Koreans then moved away from their commitment to negotiating a solution to collective security issues, towards accepting that “Bush invades those who don’t can’t defend themselves; especially, those without nuclear weapons” as a confidante advised the late Great Leader Kim Jong-il. In short, the North Koreans felt insecure, unsafe, and scared. In their own way, they felt they were reduced to begging to negotiate for years; to come in from the cold; to end the war unilaterally. We should be aware that Korea’s own priorities were based on their concept of the Three Foundations; Ideology, Military and Economy, and attention since has always been paid to support pillars embodied in self-reliance, security, sovereignty.
In arriving at multiple options to inform a viable future course, one approach then was to develop robust deterrence. This entailed continued nuclear weapons development, to buy time for 18 months without intention to agreeing in the end, and when a more formidable deterrent was built, to retain option to negotiate. All the while, driving a wedge between South Korea and its key ally the U.S. while negotiating separately for food and fuel with China, South Korea, Iran and Japan. The benefits, they reasoned, preserved leverage and augmented defense capability, at the small price of foregoing aid. A second suggested course was to speed up its nuclear program but at the same time enter good faith negotiations with six parties China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S. The idea then being to seek stepped agreement of concessions in exchange for nuclear scale-back. This course entailed no cheating and implementing any agreement reached faithfully. The benefits were the possibility of obtaining real concessions. But the cost was lower defense capability and excessive reliance on trustworthiness of counterparties, especially on the U.S. at a time when trust was especially low. The hawks advising the late ‘Dear Leader’ Kim Jong-il, father to the present ‘Great Successor’ Kim Jong-un, had other ideas which may crudely be characterized as ‘negotiate & cheat’. This meant continued nuclear weapons development, reaching negotiated agreement with six parties while retaining the option to continue clandestine weapons development at any point. They reasoned that the benefits were the possibility to obtain concessions without permanent loss of defensive capability, though it did run the risk of the U.S. detecting cheating.
At that time, as in present times in their minds, there was considerable confusion about U.S. resolve and intentions. The U.S. was widely seen as an uncontainable mortal enemy bent on trying to topple the regime no matter what. A hawkish General may well have remarked in a national security meeting “U.S. foreign policy doctrine will not stop short of removing us. Nuclear controls are not enough – they see us as inherently threatening. No agreement we could make would be secure. Our strategy must be to deter attack, not hope for agreement”. He may have reasoned that the North Korean response ought to be primarily in terms of renewed military enhancement “Develop more fissile material, speed up Taepo Dong and No Dong missile development, ramp up missile mating technology”. Some moderates though, advising Kim Jong-il saw the U.S. as a containable strategic enemy, unlikely to attack if they played their cards well. The doves, and their voices were muted, saw the U.S. as a reasonable rival, one likely to be satisfied with nuclear de-escalation.
Situation circa 2000-2005
The world in the early 2000’s was concerned with Kim Jong-il’s machinations. Little is known about how the secretive Dear Leader viewed the world, as well as how he may have assessed choices facing North Korea, or how he might have viewed negotiations with the U.S. North Korea’s national interests were never publicized and neither was much known about how his actions might best achieve them. Condoleezza “Condi” Rice an American diplomat, political scientist, civil servant, and professor who served as the 66th United States Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009 and as the 20th United States National Security Advisor describes one nightmare scenario in a private conversation: “We get distracted, negotiations drag out, and North Korea suddenly conducts a nuclear test, declaring itself a nuclear state . . . . It will be much easier to prevent this from happening than figuring out what to do, once it does.”
The World through Pyongyang’s Lens
After six-party negotiations in Beijing over the future of North Korea’s nuclear program, which included the U.S., Japan, Russia, China, and South Korea, Kim Jong-ilwanted to reexamine his strategy for survival as a state with a nuclear deterrent. Little was resolved at the Beijing summit beyond agreeing to further multi-party negotiations. The Great Leader, however, was particularly worried about issues that threatened security and integrity.
- The Bush administration reiterated its “hostile policies” demanding the “complete, verifiable and irreversible disarmament” of both North Korea’s nuclear programs—civilian and military. Privately the Bush administration also called for an end to all missile sales—a measure that would virtually cripple the economy.
- China was less willing to defend Pyongyang than it had been in the past. North Korea would be in trouble if China scaled back economic and political support.
At the Beijing talks North Korea declared it had “no alternative but to equip and strengthen itself to survive with a nuclear deterrent force.” Privately in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-ildemanded a wholesale reevaluation of North Korea’s strategic position and best options. He asked to be provided with strategic options assessing how to deal with the U.S. before negotiations resumed. Kim Jong-ilsaid that while survival with a viable nuclear deterrent was his preferred outcome, he would consider all options including a negotiated settlement, identifying the most effective carrots and sticks that each side may use.
The Four Questions
The Dear Leader also said that if he knew the answers to four questions, he would know exactly how to handle the Evil Empire.
· Under what circumstances would the U.S. be willing to attack North Korea?
· What price would the U.S. be willing to pay in attempting to de-nuclearize North Korea—Would it risk losing Seoul or Tokyo? Would it spend as much as it did in oil-rich Iraq?
· Could the U.S. be trusted to follow through with economic and security guarantees?
· How important was North Korea to China?
- The Bush administration had been split in dealing with North Korea. Its policy began as “ABC”—anything but Clinton. It was unwilling to offer carrots but was unwilling or unable to use serious sticks either.
- The A.Q. Khan nuclear proliferation affair with Pakistan and President Bush’s tough talk on non-proliferation gave renewed emphasis on containing the further spread of nuclear weapons.
- AEIOU – Afghanistan, Elections, Iraq and Osama bin Laden provided enough cover for North Korea to operate Under theU.S. foreign policy radar. The correctly reasoned as one General put it “When these issues are resolved more attention and pressure will be applied to North Korea and Kim’s freedom to maneuver will diminish”.
- After South Korea’s partial rapprochement with the North under its Sunshine Policy and its tenuous relations with the Bush administration, the South did not appear willing to support a hardline Washington position, which ran a high risk of war.
- North Korea was already close to becoming a real nuclear weapons state. In 1994, U.S. intelligence estimated that North Korea reprocessed enough plutonium for two bombs. Since the breakdown in 2002 when IAEA inspectors were evicted, North Korea had been reprocessing an additional 8000 fuel rods which provided enough plutonium for an additional six weapons. North Korea was refurbishing reactors, enrichment, and reprocessing facilities that would allow it to produce enough fissile material for an additional dozen weapons a year. And North Korea’s missile program continued apace which soon indeed posed a credible threat to Japan.
North Korea signed the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in 1986 but did not permit inspections until 1992. Inspections went poorly leading to suspicions that the Yongbyon nuclear reactor was being used to produce plutonium. In 1993 North Korea warned that it would leave the NPT but pulled back at the last minute. In April 1994 North Korea announced that it would move used fuel rods from Yongbyon without permitting international monitors, threatening to reprocess the fuel. During negotiations with the U.S., a North Korean representative threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of flames” if the U.S. provoked war. With tensions at the boiling point and the U.S. contemplating surgical air strikes, Jimmy Carter persuaded Pyongyang to return to negotiations and permit inspectors to monitor the nuclear fuel transfer.
In late 1994, Kim Il Sung died and was replaced by his son, Kim Jong-il, known to the West as a film loving playboy. The ensuing negotiations produced the Agreed Framework. North Korea agreed to shut down its Yongbyon nuclear complex and cease plutonium production. In return, a U.S.-led consortium including South Korea and Japan promised to finance the construction of two modern light-water reactors and providing 500,000 tons of fuel oil annually until the reactors were completed. Clinton’s Congressional critics were outraged, accusing him of appeasement.
Sunshine and Daydreams
In 1998 South Korea initiated its Sunshine Policy designed to lure the hermit kingdom into the international fold through openness, engagement, and economic incentives to modernize the economy. Late in 1998 it unsuccessfully tested a long-range Taepodong 1 ballistic missile. After mild threats to terminate inspections due to delays in the construction of reactors, the Agreed Framework was reaffirmed when Madeline Albright visited Pyongyang in late 2000.
Upon taking office, the Bush administration reversed the Clinton-era policy of engaging North Korea—much to the shock of South Korea. When North Korea threatened to restart the Yongbyon reactor, Bush branded it as a “grave and growing danger” in an “axis of evil.” As relations deteriorated between the U.S. and North Korea in 2002, North Korea admitted to a uranium enrichment program, but refused to terminate it. The U.S. and South Korea cut off fuel shipments. North Korea restarted plutonium reprocessing and evicted IAEA inspectors.
1989 when the USSR ended its patronage, North Korea’s shriveling economy had grown dependent upon China’s munificence. North Korea progressively become an impoverished state unable to feed its population. Agriculture then accounted for 25% of GNP yet was unable to prevent a famine during the 1990s. 60% of all children suffered from malnutrition.
North Korea: Armed to the Teeth
North Korea had 500,000 troops on high alert poised on the DMZ and Seoul is just an hour’s drive south. Thousands of artillery pieces embedded in hills near the border were trained upon Seoul and dozens of Scud missiles were also aimed south. 37,000 U.S. troops were stationed along the DMZ to deter the North. Any pre-emptive attack by the United States—even a surgical air strike—could be met with a full-frontal assault that would kill several hundred thousand South Koreans.
North Korea’s missile program has been active, ambitious, successful, and popular in the global arms bazaar, contributing until sanction were clamped roughly one quarter of North Korea’s $700M in exports. The tested No Dong missile then could easily reach Tokyo though accuracy was limited. Then yet untested and only questionably operational, it was advertised that when completed and operational Taepodong 1 & 2 missiles would be able to deliver a nuclear device to the West Coast of the U.S. From a crude nuclear weapon to a sophisticated, miniaturized weapon that can be delivered by a missile is a further, serious technical feat, and the U.S. believed there was no evidence that North Korea was anywhere near this capability.
According to a declassified CIA report, “North Korea has one or possibly two weapons using plutonium it produced prior to 1992.” A bigger question was the quantity of weapons-grade plutonium it has acquired via reprocessed nuclear reactor fuel rods. Best estimates indicated that North Korea had between 25-30kg of reprocessed plutonium, sufficient for constructing 5-6 weapons. President Bush made clear: “A decision to develop a nuclear arsenal is one that will alienate you from the rest of the world.”
North Korea had invested heavily in chemical and biological weapons. It had weapons-grade biological agents, including smallpox, which could be used in an attack on the U.S.
Hypothetical: Kim Jong-il’s Decision Making Process
Situation: North Korea’s National Interests
VITAL a) Ensure regime survival b) Deter U.S. attack
VERY IMPORTANT a) Secure maximum economic and food aid b) Maintain good relations with China and Russia.
IMPORTANT a) Secure economic relations with South Korea and Japan b) Eventual reunification of the Korean peninsula.
· Secure U.S. guarantees of a) Non-aggression b) Economic and food aid c) Energy
· Ensure China’s continued support of a) Diplomatic relations b) Food and energy
· Secure South Korean and Japanese guarantees of aid/reparations and economic projects.
Option 1: Reach Agreement with U.S.
a) Reach a negotiated agreement with the U.S. as soon as possible b) Come to an agreement without security guarantees from the U.S.
Pros: i) Reduces probability of U.S. attack ii) Guarantees some form of food aid, possible economic assistance iii) Gains credibility from China.
Cons: i) Leaves North Korea defenseless to U.S. attack ii) No guarantee that the U.S. will not attack North Korea iii) Looks weak internally iv) Foreign presence of inspectors v) May not get best deal
Option 2: Massive Military Build-Up
a) Developing WMD capabilities to get permanent deterrence to American attack b) Stall talks to buy more time for nuclear program.
Pros: i) 98% deterrence (if program successfully completed) against U.S. ii) Raises external/internal prestige iii) Permanent solution (if successful)
Cons: i) 90% risk of losing China’s support ii) International condemnation iii) Will worsen North Korea’s budget crunch iv) If U.S. discovers North Korea’s true intent to go hostile and use nuclear weapons, 90% sure U.S. will attack v) North Korea risks losing strategic ambiguity in talks.
Option 3: “Two-Track” Build-Up & Negotiate
a) Continue developing WMDs until all North Korea’s diplomatic needs are satisfied b) Hold genuine talks and keep North Korea’s needs clear and consistent.
Pros: i) Time favors North Korea’s diplomatic leverage ii) Low-Risk, High-Reward iii) Reduces risk of attack iv) Outcome either weapons or demands met v) Maintains international support vi) Continues useful ambiguity, deterring attack vii) Force the U.S. hand, while forcing them to operate in uncertainty about North Korea program.
Cons: i) U.S. may still attack ii) China may lose patience.
Decision Recommendation: Option 3: “Two-Track” Build-Up & Negotiate
a) North Korea’s progress toward WMD capability provides a major diplomatic edge b) North Korea should maximize this leverage — hold talks and as soon as North Korea’s interests are satisfied, STRIKE A DEAL c) If worse comes to worst, North Korea has the flexibility to fall back to Option 1 or 2.
U.S./REGIONAL PLAYERS GIVE a) Non-Aggression Pact b) Maximum economic assistance and food aid from the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan & the international community c) Normalization of relations with U.S. d) War reparations from Japan.
North Korea GIVES a) Verifiable dismantling of WMDs b) Stop missile sales in return for income-producing assets.
Stage 1: i) Continue talks ii) Communicate North Korea’s demands publicly and privately iii) Non-aggression pact iv) Food aid/economic assistance v) Normalization of relations with the U.S. vi) Work on nuclear programs secretly.
Stage 2: i) Warm relations with South Korea to keep wedge between U.S. and its key ally ii) Retransmit North Korea’s same demands iii) Continue nuclear programs secretly.
Stage 3; i) Drag out talks until all demands are met ii) Maintain ambiguity of WMD progress iii) Wrap up WMD construction secretly.
Stage 4: i) Give U.S. one last chance to agree ii) If negotiations fail, declare North Korea to be the next nuclear power.
Answering Dear Leader’s Four Questions
1) U.S. will attack when these conditions are met:
· U.S. military commitment eases in Iraq, elsewhere
· Iran, other “terrorist” nation is not more promising target
· George Bush is reelected
· U.S. believes North Korea nukes are imminent but not yet deployed and can be destroyed
· U.S. believes North Korea artillery can be destroyed fast enough to minimize damage on Seoul
2) Price U.S. is willing to pay to de-nuclearize North Korea?
· Would jeopardize South Korea troops
· Would jeopardize some U.S. troops
· Would accept some artillery damage on Seoul if minimized
· Would not accept attack on Japanese cities like Tokyo.
3) U.S. clearly cannot be trusted:
· U.S. violated 1994 Agreed Framework
· Has missed deadlines for KEDO, heavy fuel oil
· Bush has insisted military option remains open
· Bush has shown disdain for international agreements
· U.S. attacked another “Axis of Evil” state
4) North Korea’s importance to China:
(+) Keeps Korean peninsula from becoming unified, pro-American
(+) Buffer state from U.S. troops
(+) Old socialist ally, Chinese veterans of Korean War have pride
(-) Potential source of border instability
(-) North Korea nuke program is big diplomatic headache
(-) North Korea nuke program threatens regional arms race, not in China’s interest
Author: Sameer Jain, lightly excerpted from a memo to Condoleezza Rice