North Korea: Understanding the Regime

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Alongside the New Year’s Resolutions written by countless individuals across the globe, it can be argued that notable figures in international politics have also strengthened their resolve to change perspectives and policies in the new year.  For example, Kim Jong Un’s New Years Speech, in which he announced his desire to ‘alleviate the tensions and work together [with South Korea] as a people of the same heritage to find peace and stability’, as well as his intention to send athletes to the upcoming 2018 Winter Olympics hosted in the South, seems to be the start of the new chapter for the North Korean dictator. Indeed, in the weeks since New Year’s Day events have moved quickly, with Kim reopening the hotline with South Korea which he shut down in February 2016 in retaliation against the closing of the Kaesong Industrial Complex, a factory town which had been jointly operated by North and South Korea. Moreover, two rounds of talks between the states have occurred in Panmunjom on the 9th and 15th of January respectively, in which the logistics of North Korea participating in the PyeongChang Olympics were discussed, and it was agreed that the two sides would ‘defuse the current military tension and… hold military talks to address the issue.’ The North Korean state newspaper – Rodong Shinmun – has argued that the resumption of face-to-face talks is part of Kim’s policy to improve relations to achieve ‘national reunification’ through ‘easing the acute military tension’ and ‘creating a peaceful environment’. South and North marched under one flag at the Winter Olympics opening ceremony, and over the next 2 weeks, they will be participating as a joint team.

This behaviour is surprising to analysts given the seemingly stark contrast to North Korea’s actions on the peninsula in the past. Despite the armistice officially ending the Korean War in 1953, tensions has often escalated between the two Koreas, with North Korea having attempted to assassinate two South Korean presidents, Park Chung Hee and his successor Chun Do Hwan. In 1987, North Korean terrorists attacked a South Korean airliner, killing 115 people and resulting in their being put on a United States list of states that endorse terrorism. Less noted in the Western media, North Korea has, in the past, abducted Japanese and South Korean nationals, but also several Lebanese, Chinese, Dutch, French, Italian, Jordanian, Malaysian and Singaporean citizens. Despite Kim-Jong Il issuing an apology for the abduction of 13 Japanese citizens in 2002 and allowing 5 to be repatriated in 2004, it is believed that more Japanese remain in North Korea, on top of the estimated 480 South Koreans who have not yet been acknowledged or released. Within the country, propaganda often portrays the United States in a highly derogatory light, calling them imperialists or fascists, arguing that they began the Korean War, and depicting images such as Donald Trump being attacked and missiles pointing at the White House.

The reputation that has resulted from these actions has two aspects – that of malevolence and irrationality. The most discussed contribution to the former impression is the fact that North Korea has pursued a nuclear program. Its dogged continuation of nuclear weapon tests, despite agreeing on three separate occasions that it would halt them in exchange for assistance to North Korea, including an aid package worth 400 million dollars of food aid, seems to reflect a longstanding commitment to threatening the United States and its allies. This idea has been cemented by Kim Jong Un’s statements that the North would ‘wipe out’ South Korea and turn one of its islands into a ‘sea of fire’, or preemptively strike the United States, ‘the sworn enemy of the Korean people’. Kim has also shown his adversarial stance to the United States by threatening to back out of the Winter Olympics due to Moon Jae In’s remarks that Trump deserved ‘big credit for bringing about the inter-Korean talks’, which, according to the Korean Central News Agency, ‘cast doubt as to his intent to improve the North-South ties and build confidence’, and illustrated that they were a ‘group of pro-U.S. traitors who are only keen on currying favour with their master and keeping their power even at the sacrifice of the Winter Olympics’. Apparently, these actions also expose the irrationality of the regime, which continues to attempt to provoke the United States and its allies despite being militarily inferior. Additionally, its general volatility and isolationism fuel the commonly held perception of irrationality, given that most would argue that states which want to defend themselves or attain economic prosperity should participate in the global economy and international relations.

Confronted then, with this ‘positive’ change in relations within the Korean Peninsula which sorely contrasts its previously-built reputation, the responses of the international community has been varied. Conservative politicians in the South, alongside the United States ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, have remained skeptical, arguing that the talks are simply a distraction to allow the continual testing and development of nuclear weapons and thus the South should reject the North’s offer of talks until North Korea has agreed to non-proliferate. By contrast, the incumbent president, Moon Jae In, has welcomed the opportunity for peace talks, aptly, given one of Moon’s campaign promises was to improve the relationship between North and South Korea.

However, it seems that the shock of the international community in reaction to the North’s actions is due to a misunderstanding of North Korea – chiefly its aforementioned characterisation as irrational and hellbent on American demise. To characterise North Korea as such would be to credit propagandic manoeuvres as indicators of political intent to an extreme degree. Instead, its anti-American stance should be viewed as part of a wider strategy aiming for the ultimate goal of maintaining the power of the regime. To many, it may seem that these two can be conflated – the opposition to America and power maintenance are ultimately one and the same. Yet historical analysis enables a more nuanced view to be reached. This article will focus on analysing the tenure of Kim Jong Il to reveal that at times of considerable reconciliation, when America no longer presented as large of a threat to the North, the anti-American rhetoric of the regime faded considerably, therefore showing that North Korean hostility is not inherently targeted at America but just the idea of an active threat. Additionally, the situation of Kim Jong Un specifically, and his aggressive actions to the United States which have fed North Korea’s reputation can be explained through recourse to the choices of his predecessors in order to show that in the circumstantial nature of aggression against America as part of power maintenance.

Kim Il Sung

Firstly, however, it is useful to reflect on Kim Il Sung, who was the first leader of North Korea, appointed by the Soviet Union in 1945 and remaining in power until his death in 1994. It is notable that Kim Il Sung’s policy was markedly more aggressive than those of his successors because of the differences in the relations between North Korea, China, the Soviet Union, and the United States. However, this is because, given the circumstances, continual aggression against the United States facilitated his maintenance of power. In the midst of the Cold War, Il Sung shaped North Korean propaganda and actions to directly contradict the motives of the Americans. However,  in the high stakes environment of the Cold War, Il Sung acted in a way which could reasonably be judged by him to be an aggressive strategy of defending his regime against the American hegemony.

Indeed, the USS Pueblo incident, where an American ship was attacked and captured by North Korean forces, and the assassination attempts on South Korean presidents, can also be read as power maintenance within the context of the Cold War. Following the gradual divergence of the USSR and China, China sought to gain North Korean support by encouraging hostilities on the peninsula, which would in turn pull them away from the Soviet Union. Il Sung undertook these actions under the assumption that he would be able to retain Chinese support, which would aid the preservation of the regime. Il Sung also pursued the policy of reunification under his reign,through acts such as the invasion of South Korea and this can be understood contextually – namely, the fact that the peninsula was newly partitioned and thus there was considerable investment in the idea of reunifying it. The contradiction between this policy and the maintenance of power are clear, in that actions undertaken to reunify the peninsula unilaterally obviously caused external pressure. Yet it is also notable that as a result, Kim Jong Il and Jong Un have not followed in Il Sung’s footsteps in attempting such manoeuvres, as trial and error as well as the decreasing receptivity to unification in South Korean civil society make it clearer that unification is less possible than originally envisioned, and the issue of power maintenance within the North therefore is the priority.

Kim Jong Il

For Kim Jong Il, who ruled between 1994 and 2011, circumstances meant that a less aggressive stance with America was more likely to enable self-preservation. On the one hand, during periods of substantial threat, he did not hesitate to undertake aggressive acts against South Korea, such as the sinking of the South Korean vessel Cheonan in 2010, and the bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island later that year. Although often understood as unprovoked attacks, it is notable that the former occurred whilst the Cheonan ship was near the Northern Limit Line in highly contested waters between the two Koreas, whilst the latter occurred in response to seemingly aggressive developments in the South. South Korea requested for United States permission that tactical nuclear weapons be built on their territory following the North’s unveiling of their own nuclear facilities, and days later, the annual Hoguk joint military exercises between the South and the United States were launched. The North considers that these exercises are preparation for a land invasion. Although, evidently, this does not justify the reaction of Kim Jong Un – what it does do is contextualise the actions of North Korea and allow us to understand how they can be understood as self-defence.

On the other hand, when relations with South Korea and the United States indicated that the North Korean regime was not in significant danger, it is notable that North Korea would act in a much more conciliatory manner. The key example of this is the ‘Sunshine Policy’, implemented by South Korean presidents Kim Dae Yung and Roh Moo Hyun, undertaken to soften North Korea’s attitude towards South Korea by providing economic assistance. The policy included measures such as allowing the private sector to invest in North Korea, North-South co-operative businesses including Mount Kumgang Tourist Region, increased communication, and providing humanitarian assistance. Notably, when establishing this policy Kim Dae Yung made sure that it aimed at integration rather than absorption, and thus presented no threat to the regime.

In response to this less threatening environment, Kim Dae Yung and Kim Jong Il were able to meet in 2000—the first conference between the leaders of the two Koreas since the Korean war. The was the adoption of the June 15th North-South Joint Declaration, an agreement to settle reunification, promote peaceful reunification, solve humanitarian problems, encourage economic growth and dialogue. The North’s extraordinary responsiveness to the Sunshine Policy, although small, was a sign of willing cooperation in situations when their power felt stable and unthreatened. Additionally, it has also been argued that the reason for the North’s responsiveness was the prediction that it would drive South Korea and America apart due to American disapproval of the policy of appeasement.This also indicates that the North is considerably influenced by the desire to preserve and maintain the power of the regime.

Indeed, North Korea only pulled out of negotiations after it was abruptly labeled part of the axis of evil by Bush following 9/11, despite unilaterally signing two anti-terrorism resolutions in its wake. The North’s reluctance following this statement is indicative of Jong Un’s fears of American interference, and it is notable that when Roh Moo Hyun undertook the Sunshine Policy during his tenure, only slow progress was made as a result. The North continued to develop nuclear weapons during this period despite joining talks with the South, undoubtedly observing renewed American hostility. Tellingly, however, once the South Korean public had tired of the slow progress of North Korea, and turned instead to the conservative Lee Myung-Bak, who had a stricter policy towards the North, progress halted as the regime felt increasingly under threat. The North continued to lash out through long-range rocket launches, quitting talks and threatening to close the Kaesong industrial complex.

Therefore, during Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung’s rule, the North’s actions can be interpreted through a realist lens – whenever the North felt threatened they sought to act in an anti-American and anti-South Korean manner, yet when circumstances meant that this would not be the best option to facilitate preservation, they did not do so.

Kim Jong Un

It seems, however, that Kim Jong Un’s policies and rhetoric since taking power in 2011 have been astonishingly aggressive and anti-American. However, this can be understood as a continuation of the reactive policy of his predecessors, which is only apparently more aggressive due to his reaction to the specific pressures he faces, domestic and international, in his attempt to maintain autocratic rule.

Domestically, Kim Jong Un faces greater pressure than his father or grandfather before him. The predictions of the foreign press when Jong Un came to power were largely of North Korea’s collapse due to a perceived inability to consolidate power. Senior military commanders were tipped to take precedence over him, being more established leaders, and due to his position as the second son in the family would mean he was unable to legitimise his rule. Exacerbating his familial position, Jong Un was hurried through the succession process following the sudden collapse of his father in 2009, meaning that there was little time for him to gain political experience and a reputation within the government. He was pushed into the position of vice-chair of the Central Military Committee in 2010, and given that this position was created for him by his father only a year prior to his death, Kim Jong Un’s authority was dubitable. By contrast, his father Jong Il joined the Workers Party of Korea immediately following his graduation from university and was a permanent member of its highest committee for twenty years prior to his own father’s death and his ascension.  This difference in succession process was not an issue for the civilian population of North Korea, who were not in the position to place pressure upon the regime, but there was a danger of loss of elite support and therefore the fall of Kim Jong Un . Indeed, Jong Un’s insecurity can be seen in the assassination of his older brother Jong Nam, the favourite to rule before being accused of being a capitalist by his father, in order to ensure that there were no contenders for his position.

This crisis of consolidation was worsened by the fact that both of his predecessors had successfully established policies of their own which had both propagandic and political value, and he was expected to continue this legacy. Il Sung created his policy of Juche, meaning principal agent in Korean, comparable to the idea of autarky espoused by the Nazi regime in that it sought to create an entirely self-reliant state. Although it is evident that he failed to accomplish this in reality, given the North Korean state’s dependency on China, the Soviet Union, and the Communist Bloc, the implications of this philosophy for his propaganda was that it enabled him to create the impression that he was a strong and efficient leader. Moreover, Juche became the founding ideology for North Korean society and politics, a ambivalent mix of extreme nationalism and anticolonialism that often acted as the basis for belief in the regime by its citizens. Its importance is shown by the fact that his successors would have to continue to give lipservice to it after Jong Il’s death death. Following this Jong Il also created his own philosophy of Songun, a philosophy which made imperative the prioritisation of the military. This served as a means to both consolidate power domestically and also to increase the power of the military and thus prevent foreign invasion. Essentially, this left Jong Un with the responsibility of continuing both these philosophies by maintaining both the high levels of money placed into the military as well as the impression of a strong independent Korea, whilst also somehow creating his own legacy to prove his capacity as a leader.

As a response to this, Jong Un intensified anti-American rhetoric to new extremes, demonising the Americans in order to provide a justification for the existence of his regime. The focus has turned to the acceleration of the nuclear program specifically to show he has the capacity to defend the country from America. This rhetorical change has allowed him to develop his grandfather’s philosophy of Juche, whilst the latter policy change clearly resonates with the elites, who were largely supportive of Songun. It has been noted in research on the differences in rhetoric between Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un that, prior to 2011, the regime espoused the message that it would continue nuclear proliferation unless it was offered three concessions – no US hostility, no US nuclear threat, and a peace treaty. By contrast, Kim Jong Un’s propaganda shows a hardened resolve, with statements that denuclearisation was ‘no longer possible’ due to ‘intensifying US hostility’.

The differing levels of domestic support garnered by Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il is also reflected in the propaganda used prior to nuclear tests, as noted by Professor Michael Lammbrau in collaboration with Taehee Whang and Hyung-min Joo. Kim Jong Il targeted international audiences when making propagandic announcements concerning nuclear weaponry, and key words used were ‘suppression,’ ‘DWI (down-with-imperialism),’ ‘delegation,’ ‘foreign,’ ‘greeting’ and ‘cooperation’.” The latter four words were clearly aimed at communicating a willingness to reconcile with nations that were sympathetic to North Korea, or were willing to make concessions to them. They were also pointedly chosen in order to allow Kim Jong Il to consolidate his relationships with allies who he knew would inevitably react adversely to the nuclear tests. By contrast, in the Kim Jong Un era propaganda is targeted domestically in order to build a strong reputation and garner support, and words that are repeated are defensive and make no hint of responsiveness to foreign diplomacy – ‘respected’ , ‘sovereignty’ and ‘defending’. This situation is only exacerbated by Trump’s increasing provocations. On the one hand, it is necessary for Jong Un to respond with bellicose language and threats in order to maintain face in front of the party. On the other hand, he can also never be assured whether the US will follow through with Trump’s threats, and as a result will continue to err on the side of caution through nuclear deterrence.

Recent Events

Ultimately, recent events are not a sudden change in North Korean policy, but a continuance of previous trends – North Korea’s government policy is not to stand in opposition to America, or South Korea, but to maintain power. Kim Jong Un’s previously aggressive actions, and his recent offers of peace can be viewed as the best way to maintain power in different conditions – initially he faced considerable domestic and international challenges, which have now been resolved to an extent. Kim Jong Un has several reasons to feel more secure in his position. Domestically, the assassination of possible objectors within the elites, as well as his older brother, place him in a steadier position for retaining authority. Internationally, the development of nuclear weapons to an unprecedented level allows Kim Jong Un increased breathing space, and in turn, means that he is more open to possible negotiation from a position in which other states are less likely to attack him. The appointment of Moon Jae In in 2017, a South Korean leader who is more similar to Kim Dae-Yung and Roh Moo-Hyun in his approach to the North, is also encouraging for the North Korean leader, who may see an opening for better relations in order to increase the likelihood of the regime’s preservation. Most importantly, the joint American-South Korean military exercises were postponed this year due to the Olympics. As aforementioned, these military exercises are considered to be preparations for invasion by the regime, and during times of year where they are taking place, tensions between the two Koreas rise immeasurably. Indeed, South Korean citizens have grown accustomed to higher threat levels, more extreme provocations, and an increasing presence of military vehicles during the period in which the exercises are occurring. and the integral status of this action in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table can be seen in the fact that they informed their counterpart of their intention to accept South Korea’s offer of talks in Panmunjom, just hours after the postponement was announced.

The unpredictability and malevolence of the regime, then, is simply a result of the inaccurate perception of the regime’s agenda. If the goal of the regime is perceived to be the demise of America, it is irrational and erratic – escalating tensions in the past few months, and now asking for negotiations with the South, a prominent US ally. By contrast, if we consider the North as a rational actor, seeking its own maintenance, and responding to external and domestic pressures as reasonably as possible, then the events of 2018 make more sense.


The implications of this shift in analytical lens are far and wide. Firstly, it seems that if war is to break out on the peninsula, it will not be due to an explicit policy goal of North Korea. This is because, given its chief aim of power maintenance, North Korea would never go to war unless it was struck preemptively or had reason to assume it was going to be struck preemptively due to imperfect information or brinkmanship. Secondly, North Korea will finish developing nuclear weapons to a level at which they feel safe as long as they continue to be capable of doing so, regardless of any sanctioning. There is no incentive on the part of the North Korean regime to back down, given that nuclear weapons are key to the maintenance of Kim Jong Un’s own power and legitimacy amongst elites. Lastly, as a result, Moon Jae In should not use nuclear weapons as a pressure point during talks if he wishes to make progress. This was illustrated earlier this week when the North announced that the nuclear weapons program was not up for discussion with the South Korean government. Overall, it seems that in order to reach a peace with the North as Moon wants, it is necessary for him to return to original campaign promises of a more welcoming policy towards the North instead of bowing to the pressure placed on him by the current American administration, which demands an increasingly threatening stance.

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