Over the past couple of months, in what might be mistaken as a dramatic effort not to be upstaged by fires, floods or earthquakes, the North Korean regime of Kim Jung-un has continued to demonstrate its determination to develop nuclear weapons with the capability of threatening the United States. But do not mistake the most recent developments in North Korea as a mere effort to get attention.
The United States has literally two choices with regard to North Korea: 1) take military action to stop the North from developing nuclear capabilities; or 2) learn to live with a nuclear armed
North Korea. Kim Jung-un appears to be betting his country, and his life, that the U.S. will choose the latter.
Observers in the United States can easily write off the actions of Kim Jung-un as that of a lunatic, but that is a dangerous over-simplification. Kim Jung-un successfully leads one of the most repressive regimes in the world. That is not an easy task. Repression on the scale of that seen in North Korea tends to lead to revolt, and upheaval, and yet Kim Jung-un manages to continue to hold on to power, just as his father did, and his father before him. Maintaining power is Kim’s number one priority, and everything he does must be looked at from a perspective of how it helps him to maintain power.
Kim’s ability to hold on to power has essentially been based on three goals: 1) Having money to reward loyalty; 2) Maintaining a perception of perpetual conflict; and 3) Creating an image that North Korea is more important in the world than it really is. In other words, North Korea has to generate enough wealth to keep enough people in the country happy enough to maintain power. North Korea must also maintain a continual state of imminent threat from the outside world, in order to keep the people in fear that things could always get worse, and that they need to sacrifice for the common good.
Finally, North Korea needs for its people to believe that they are actually better off and further advanced than most countries in the world. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program helps further all three goals and is, therefore, at least in the eyes of the regime, absolutely critical to survival.
North Korea’s program to develop missiles and nuclear weapons goes back more than forty years to the days when Kim Jung-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the Great Leader, was in power. Over the years, North Korea developed a pattern of both selling its military technology to other rogue states, and also using it as a bargaining chip, such as promising to stop development of nuclear technology in exchange for massive amounts of aid. Then when attention turned away, they would immediately fire the weapons programs back up again.
North Korean Leaders have watched carefully as the leaders of other totalitarian regimes have been executed because they didn’t have the means to hold on to power. It is safe to say that Kim Jung-un does not want to end up like Muammar Gaddafi, of Libya, in 2011, any more than his father wanted to end up like Saddam Hussein, of Iraq, in 2006, or his grandfather like Nicolae Ceausescu, of Romania, in 1989. They have also taken note how countries like India and Pakistan have obtained nuclear weapons, and then been allowed to keep them, becoming, in North Korea’s eyes, members of a small group of countries respected for their military might.
There is a lot of talk floating around about sanctions. Sanctions are useless without the participation of China. China will never completely cut off North Korea. There is no doubt that China would prefer North Korea not to develop nuclear weapons (which will most certainly lead to both South Korea and Japan also developing nuclear weapons), but China is most concerned with a scenario where North Korea collapses and millions of refugees flood across the Chinese border, and ultimately South Korea, and the U.S., end up right on their border. So China will never squeeze North Korea hard enough to make them give up their nuclear weapons.
Kim Jung-un believes that a nuclear weapons program is essential to maintaining power, and the key to obtaining the money and respect he needs to stay in power. He will never abandon it. He may promise to stop for a time, in exchange for money, but he will never abandon it unless he is forced to, or unless he feels that continuing to pursue it threatens his ability to stay in power. Remember, his main goal is to stay alive and to stay in power, and his nuclear program has been a successful means to ensuring that end.
In this regard, perhaps the most recent threats of President Trump to destroy North Korea if “rocket man” Kim Jung-un doesn’t realize that denuclearization is his only option may in some ways be a potentially successful strategy. If Kim truly thinks his life and ability to hold on to power are in jeopardy, he would change course. On the other hand, President Trump’s threats, if carried out, would potentially place in jeopardy the lives of tens of thousands of Americans in South Korea, along with millions of South Koreans, so Kim may just assume President Trump is bluffing.
So we have to ask ourselves, can we tolerate a North Korea armed with nuclear weapons and ICBMs? Even with such weapons, North Korea probably would not fire them on the U.S. unprovoked. However, North Korea would probably not hesitate to sell them to countries such as Iran or Syria who would not hesitate to use them, so allowing North Korea to proceed on its current path is unacceptable. Therefore, if Kim is undeterred by President Trump’s counter threats, our options are limited, perhaps to only the single option of taking military action.
Gilbert Fisher is a native of Cowley, Wyo., who served an LDS mission in the Seoul Korea Mission, majored in journalism and Korean at Brigham Young University, attended graduate school in Political Science at Seoul’s Yonsei University and who, once upon a time, lived and worked in South Korea for more than 10 years. Though he has been a lawyer practicing in California for the past 17 years, his wife is Korean, and he spends a great deal of time, even now, speaking Korean and trying to stay abreast of Korean current affairs.