October 12, 2021

So often portrayed as a rogue state, North Korea is actually hyper-rational. The regime tends to get what it wants — and, crucially, on its own terms. The awkward fact is, nuclear weapons make a nation very powerful. “We are talking about a country which has a similar-sized economy to Mozambique,” says Dr Andrei Lankov, director of Korea Risk Group. “Yet North Korea is playing a massive role in global politics, exclusively because of its nuclear weapons.”

North Korea has been a nuclear power for almost exactly 15 years — but in 2018, the nation agreed to put its nuclear ambitions on the back burner, in the first meeting between a Supreme Leader and an American President. Recently, though, the regime has been on a weapons testing binge. Two weeks ago, North Korea successfully tested a new “strategic weapon” — meaning one that can carry nukes — in the form of a hypersonic missile called Hwasong-8. It was the country’s third missile test in the space of a month, having earlier tested a new type of cruise missile, as well as a Hollywood-sounding system that launches missiles by train.

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All this is just evidence of the military-powered petulance of a despotic regime, you might say. What Western commentators seem reluctant to point out, however, is that their neighbours on the other side of the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) have been upping the stakes too. Few remarked upon the fact that the train-launched system test happened the same day that South Korea tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, making it the first country without nuclear weapons to develop such a system.

Analysis tends to centre around the two Koreas as proxies of China and the United States. And in the West most have a binary view of the North as relentlessly aggressive and the South as virtuous yet besieged. But this flurry of weapons testing reveals a worrying arms race in which both nations are participating, as each side seeks more independence from their superpower of choice. It’s been a mere three years since Kim Jong-un and his counterpart Moon Jae-in first met — and promised to work towards reunification. Now, both are upping the ante in search of heavily fortified peace, as a new generation of leaders are stepping back from the long-held goal of returning to one Korea.

For the North, becoming a nuclear power was always an existential calculation — partly triggered by the US invasion of Iraq. One of many disastrous consequences of a disastrous war, the toppling of Saddam Hussein — and, later, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya — led Kim Jong-il to conclude that dictators unarmed with nuclear weapons get overthrown. But there are other, more oblique, benefits to having a nuclear armoury. Lankov tells me:

“They have used their weapons to squeeze aid from foreign governments which would not normally provide aid to North Korea, or at least would provide aid on conditions which the North Korean government does not see as acceptable, such as total monitoring distribution of aid to the needy population by foreign NGO workers.”

The regime doesn’t want to be wholly reliant on China, so needs to coerce other nations into charity. At the moment, China keeps the state afloat, partly in line with its foreign policy of “non-interference”, and partly because it does not want a humanitarian crisis of 25 million people on its border. I’ve seen that border, from both sides, and parts are painfully easy to cross: in some places, like Dandong, it’s nothing more than trickles of rivers with flimsy wire fences and a couple of disinterested border guards who knock off at sunset.

For their part, the Chinese are said to be unhappy with the Kim regime, setting red lines for its military program — such as not reintroducing long range missile and nuclear tests — which the North has wisely obeyed. At the same time, China’s only real influence is economic: if it were to overthrow the Kim regime and install a favoured general, it would create just the kind of destabilising effect the Chinese are afraid of.

To put it bluntly, North Korea is nobody’s ally and a pain in everyone’s neck. Beyond its military, two of the state’s greatest capabilities appear to be manufacturing methamphetamine and hacking (it’s believed to be behind the hack of Sony in 2014 after an unflattering portrayal of their leader in the film The Interview). Experts believe that its military capabilities are likely stolen from Russia and reverse engineered.

All of which is to say that the North Korean military program is about ensuring the regime survives. Appearing responsible allows them to negotiate sanctions relief with the United States, adhering to the moratorium on nuclear tests keeps China happy, and a happy China continues the flow of aid and resources to the tune of about $2 billion per year (without it, the nation could fall into decay within weeks).

Old promises offered by the United States to the North, namely economic growth, are now of little interest to the regime. Military might is the only tried and tested way of getting what it wants. “Markets are bad for political stability, and the North Koreans are rolling them back,” Lankov said. “It means that we are probably going to deal with North Korea for the next 10 years or so as a significantly more repressive society, where the government will care more about central control than they do about economic development.”

Talks between the two Koreas about reconciliation and unification are an accepted theatre. People often point to the unification of Germany, which he says was really a conquest of the East by the West (albeit one that most people wanted). “North Korea dreams of conquering the South, but it is a dream that will probably never come true,” says Lankov. Recently, Kim Jong Un moved away from the old goal of liberating Southern compatriots from their miserably capitalist lives to “common prosperity of the entire nation.” 

This is something the North and South seem to agree on. “Unless you’re talking to old school, anti-communists or hardline human rights people in the South,” Lankov tells me, “reunification is not what they want — because they don’t want to have to pay for the victory,” he said. Young South Koreans, in particular, care less and less about reuniting the two nations and closing the huge gap in health, education, infrastructure — even language and culture — cleaved by almost 70 years apart. It’s estimated that doing so would cost the South $591 billion over a decade.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has labelled public opinion in the South — significant majorities of people wanting military alliances with both the United States and China — “a mixture of paradoxes”. In reality, it’s an expression of wanting peace, with Koreans knowing all too well the cost of civil war — which is what any dissolution of the North Korean regime would probably amount to. “Any sort of reunification would immediately provoke the collapse of the regime,” says Lankov. “It won’t look like Germany — we’re talking serious bloodshed on the scale of Libya or Syria.”

“They’re not a bunch of suicidal idiots — the idea of reunification with social justice and righting wrongs is the kind of rubbish intellectuals like to believe.”

The real paradox here, then, isn’t the Southern yearning for multiple military alliances, or moving away from reconciliation — it’s the current and substantial military build-up taking place in the country, on top of the United States’ continued military expansion in the Pacific.

The best prospect for a unified Korea would be a situation where the Chinese decide not to intervene, the US agrees to pay, and the South Korean tanks roll in — conquest disguised as reunification. In other words, something so unlikely that the status quo is looking like the only way forward for people on both sides of the DMZ. This is the reality of post-Cold War peace and harmony: two neighbours armed to the teeth, looking beyond the patronage of their superpower ally to advance their own military capabilities in a futile game of chicken.