North Korea: more threats and brinkmanship

Authors: Peter Hayes, Sydney University and Roger Cavazos, Nautilus Institute

The first two months of 2016 showed that North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, is committed to creating a new leadership doctrine in order to maintain domestic power. This doctrine is based on economic growth and demonstrated nuclear weapons prowess.

North Korea held its fourth nuclear test on 6 January 2016. A partially successful satellite launch followed on 7 February. Then on 2–3 February, North Korea held an unprecedented joint meeting between the Central Committee of the Workers Party and the party’s Korea People’s Army Committee. More joint meetings and rare ‘expanded sessions’ are expected in the lead-up to the first congress of the Worker’s Party of Korea in three decades, which will take place in May 2016.

These events herald major structural changes in the way North Korea operates as a polity and an economy. They also raise the possibility of political and military collisions with South Korea and the United States in 2016.

Kim Jong-un has demonstrated that he has no intention of capitulating to international demands over nuclear, missile, military and human rights issues. North Korea’s internal resilience and place in the international system mean that its strategic posture cannot easily be changed by external pressure. But a comprehensive regional approach could induce North Korea to ‘normalise’ its domestic and international behaviour in ways that external pressure has failed to achieve.

North Korea’s Suryong or ‘Supreme Leader System’ faces serious challenges. Unlike his predecessors, Kim Jong-un cannot simply impose his will on the Party and the military. He cannot bend the economy to support his leadership and that of the military without allowing a powerful market dynamic to emerge. He cannot suppress a new class of those made wealthy by black and informal markets. And he cannot ignore a population increasingly exposed to external information.

Whether Kim can remake the rigid party–military system to sustain his personal control is an open question. But his actions in the opening months of 2016 suggest he will not shrink from this task. Should he succeed, North Korea will emerge in the coming decades as a powerful spoiler state.

Just as important as the nuclear and rocket tests was Kim’s address on 1 January 2016. While the word ‘nuclear’ appeared only twice in a 4700 word English translation, Kim’s references to ‘youth power’ were an entirely new and noteworthy theme. Kim’s words have already been translated into concrete terms in a newly opened Youth Museum.

It seems that a new doctrine in Kim Jong-un’s personal ideological brand is in the making. Kim started the new year with military tests to underscore the rise of a new generation of leadership. This suggests that he will be much more active in 2016.

A fourth nuclear test without concurrent progress on intermediate and long-range delivery systems made little difference, militarily speaking, to North Korea’s deteriorating strategic position. But it made a huge difference to a hyper-nationalist appeal aimed at lending Kim Jong-un celebrity status and legitimacy among the youth of North and South Korea. Far from a last gasp, the 6 January 2016 nuclear test was merely the punctuation point at the end of his 1 January speech, and the opening salvo in a generational transition in North Korea.

Nuclear testing reinforces Kim Jong-un’s reputation as a hard liner as he prepares for the resumption of the Party congress after a 30-year break. Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy was reinforced by the 7 February rocket launch, putting him in a strong position to direct changes at the forthcoming Party congress. There, Kim will likely set out to re-order North Korea’s rigid bureaucracies and ailing state-based economy.

The international community failed to respond to the nuclear test in a timely and coherent manner. The ill-advised American response — sending a B52 bomber to fly over Osan Air Force Base on 10 January 2016 — simply lent credence to Kim’s embrace of nuclear weaponry and the power of the Supreme Leadership system.

Apart from expanded discord between the United States and China, the main fallout from the nuclear test and the rocket launch has been the pall cast on inter-Korean affairs. South Korea’s decision to shut down completely the inter-Korean Kaesong Industrial Complex led to an immediate reoccupation of the related section of the Demilitarised Zone by the North Korean military. This outcome portends an ugly North Korean riposte and a period of overt and covert military confrontation in 2016.

Decades of incremental attempts to stop and reverse North Korea’s breakout have failed completely. More international dithering will enable the DPRK to acquire a full-spectrum nuclear deterrent within the next two decades. From Kim Jong-un’s perspective, only a comprehensive regional security settlement between the great powers, combined with a regional nuclear weapons-free zone, can provide a substitute for North Korea’s nuclear weapons. Kim’s leadership would gain more recognition from such treaty-based agreements than he could ever hope to gain from a renegade nuclear weapons program.

Unless an attempt is made to change Kim’s strategic calculus, it is virtually certain that the DPRK will conduct more nuclear tests and launch more satellites. It may even start to test long-range re-entry vehicles and convert space launch rockets into ballistic missile delivery systems.

Yet it seems unlikely that the international community will engage with the North Korean challenge to the extent that is necessary. North Korea will continue to rely on conventional artillery and rockets aimed at Seoul as the foundation of its deterrence strategies. Rigid responses to Kim Jong-un’s nuclear test do not portend a break in this cycle of threats and brinksmanship in 2016.

Peter Hayes is Honorary Professor, Center for International Security Studies, Sydney University, and Director of the Nautilus Institute in Berkeley, California. Roger Cavazos is a researcher at the Nautilus Institute.

An extended version of this article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Stuck in the middle?’.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments