The killing of almost 2 million people is an integral part of the North Korean psyche. In the context of shifting global alliances and the collapse of communism worldwide, a nuclear arsenal gives North Korea’s increasingly isolated regime a critical lifeline.
The state of war between the two countries never truly ended. American troops still patrol the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas, and successive US governments have continued to put the regime in Pyongyang in their sights.
Long before President Donald Trump’s threats of “fire and fury,” decision-makers in Washington had planned to topple the regime following the fall of the Soviet Union. Then-President George W. Bush labelled North Korea part of the “axis of evil.”
With the specter of US military might constantly on the horizon, North Korea is more determined than ever to cling to its nuclear program. It is by no means a military heavyweight, but the peninsula’s military history necessitates a nuclear deterrent.
To Kim Jong-un, given that Pyongyang was flattened in living memory and Gen. Douglas MacArthur (supported by Congress) wanted to drop 30-50 atomic bombs on the country, nuclear weapons act as his regime’s insurance policy. US adventurism over the last two decades has illustrated that regimes unwilling to change will be changed — this reality has not escaped the attention of decision-makers in Pyongyang.
Within a decade of giving up his nuclear program and being invited to join the international community, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi was executed by Western-backed rebels. Iraq’s Baathist regime, which had hidden behind the paper tiger of a menacing nuclear program, was soon toppled despite inspectors finding no conclusive evidence of weapons of mass destruction.
The lesson Pyongyang learned was that the problem was not in pursuing a nuclear program, but rather in failing to pursue one. The recent launches of intercontinental ballistic missiles were not optional, but rather essential tenets of regime survival.
Encircled economically, the regime is in pursuit of a military deterrent on the cheap. The UN Security Council has imposed its toughest sanctions on North Korea in response to recent missile testing. But rather than force Pyongyang to negotiate, it has made it more erratic. It is now overtly accelerating toward putting the US within range of its ballistic missiles.
While North Korea is by no means a military heavyweight, Kim Jong-un believes his country’s military history necessitates a nuclear deterrent.
Zaid M. Belbagi
Japan and the US outspend North Korea militarily by a factor of 50. Due to economic stagnation in the North, South Korea is able to commit to a military budget five times larger than that of its neighbor. As the North’s economy struggles, focusing on nuclear deterrence allows the regime to shrink its standing army and free up the manpower desperately needed to feed the country’s stunted heavy industry.
Though the regime has struggled under sanctions, following recent tests the US must now take into account that Pyongyang could hit the American mainland with a nuclear-tipped missile. In this respect, the decision to focus on “guns over butter” has given the regime a lifeline. Knowing full well that Washington’s response to a strike would bring unfathomable destruction to North Korea, Kim’s weapons give him a strong negotiating position.
Market-based reforms implemented in North Korea, and the ambitious nuclear program, have led to a strange situation whereby economic growth is at a 17-year high. Despite economic isolation, the manufacture of components and unprecedented electricity production related to nuclear development mean that gross domestic product (GDP) grew by almost 4 percent last year.
But the regime is aware that the noose is tightening, with even erstwhile allies such as China blocking imports from North Korea and restricting fuel supplies. Since Kim’s rule is heavily reliant on a revolutionary elite that has grown accustomed to the economic excesses of despotism, he knows that economic implosion would bring an end to his dynasty. The relentless pursuit of nuclear weapons may have brought a dying regime just enough time and leverage to secure the economic and development aid it so desperately needs.
• Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid