The domestic value of nuclear weapons for North Korea

Edward Howell

Korean People’s Army Soldiers take part in a military parade in Pyongyang, July 27, 2013. Photo: AFP contributor via Getty Images.

As the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the globe in March this year, North Korea conducted nine separate missile launches. The reclusive state has become notorious for its nuclear development programme and human rights violations, despite numerous international attempts to halt its nuclear ambitions since the mid-1990s. Three meetings between US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un since 2018 have delivered no substantial concessions on the North’s nuclear programme. Indeed, the Kim Jong-un regime seems to have reinforced its nuclear ambitions in recent speeches, emphasizing the importance of the state’s nuclear deterrent.

As I argue in my recent article in International Affairs, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have domestic and international audiences. I show how the DPRK’s nuclear doctrine has been firmly embedded in the national ideology of ‘juche’. I contend that North Korea engrains its nuclear programme within this ideology for two reasons: framing the DPRK’s identity against the US, and bolstering domestic legitimacy and national identity in a way that offers a means to sustain the regime.

Juche and nuclear weapons: an ideology of self-reliance

Juche, meaning ‘agency’, has been the national ideology of North Korea since the state’s inception in 1948. The ideology posits independence in three domains: politics, defence, and the economy. For North Korea, the development of nuclear weapons is not simply a form of deterrence against what it perceives to be a hostile international environment led by the US. Nuclear weapons are also central to the North Korean regime’s identity as an independent power. As the ideology frames it, the so-called ‘hermit kingdom’ had little choice but to fend for itself in a world in which the North Korean regime felt victimized at the hands of great powers in the post-war international order.

Nuclear ideology and regime survival

The process which embeds North Korea’s nuclear doctrine within its wider juche ideology has four steps. Firstly, the regime discusses its nuclear programme in tandem with its national ideology. Secondly, the regime uses rhetoric based on state ideology to promote its nuclear programme to its population. Thirdly, the diffusion of juche ideology across the North Korean population translates into popular belief in the nuclear doctrine as a core component of the ideology. Finally, the incorporation of nuclear doctrine within the national ideology achieves domestic legitimacy, granting popular acquiescence to the regime in the process and aiding its continued survival. Yet, with growing access to information from outside, fewer North Korean citizens may internalize the tenets of juche. That said, given the high costs of expressing dissent, compliance without internalized belief remains likely.

North Korea: to engage or contain?

There remains ongoing debate about how the international community should deal with a nuclear North Korea. The domestic value of the state’s nuclear programme is only one of multiple reasons for North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Yet, too often, policymaking has neglected the domestic value of nuclear weapons, particularly in terms of the ideology of juche. Presidential summitry between Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump has yielded little progress, with the DPRK refusing to abandon its nuclear ambitions. There is speculation of a so-called ‘October surprise’, namely a further summit between Trump and Kim, but the North Korean regime has stressed it will not engage in dialogue if its own demands are not met.

North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons unilaterally unless the regime feels it can benefit. Indeed, US recalcitrance to ease sanctions targeting the North Korean economy led to the infamous inconclusion of the Hanoi summit in February 2019. As the North Korean economy further stagnates in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, a partial easing of unilateral and multilateral sanctions should not be seen as synonymous with US capitulation to North Korea’s desires. Yet, even if some sanctions are eased, the remaining sanctions need to be rigidly enforced.

Washington should test the conditions under which the DPRK would engage in trustworthy negotiations. If Pyongyang offers ostensibly useless parts of its main nuclear facility at Yongbyon, such a manoeuvre should not be dismissed as futile. Although Kim Jong-un has claimed that the DPRK is preparing to live with the imposition of sanctions, the United States needs to recognize, in advance of any substantive negotiations, what would satisfy the North, whether that may be partial sanctions easing or even temporary suspensions on USSouth Korean military exercises.

With the departure of John Bolton as US National Security Advisor, Washington may be amenable towards a more flexible approach vis-à-vis negotiations with Pyongyang. At the same time, history has shown that negotiating with North Korea is not easy; nuclear weapons are only one obstacle. Pyongyang’s ongoing egregious human rights violations continue to hinder its full participation in international society.

The prospects of North Korea making substantial concessions on its nuclear arsenal look bleak. To understand this reticence, policymakers in the West must understand the political significance of the nuclear ideology in the domestic DPRK context. An underacknowledged question facing the government in Pyongyang, after years of emphasising the self-reliance delivered by nuclear weapons, is how to communicate any international concessions to the domestic audience.

Edward Howell is Stipendiary Lecturer in Politics at New College, University of Oxford.

His article, ‘The juche H-bomb? North Korea, nuclear weapons and regime-state survival’, was published in the July 2020 issue of International Affairs.

Read the article here.

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