Foreign Policy Blogs

North Korea’s Grand Strategy

It is easy to brush off North Korea’s behavior as irrational, but the fact that the Kim regime consolidated and has maintained power since 1948 says otherwise. If North Korea was truly an irrational actor, it would not have been able to survive this long. And to have maintained a three generation dictatorship while being viewed very poorly by the majority of the international community is impressive to say the least. The Kim family, specifically Kim Il-sung, has always acted in a way to best meet their grand strategic goals. The two most important being the consolidation of national power in the Kim family and the international recognition of North Korea. In order to meet those goals they had to prevent any internal or external challenge to their leadership.

To face the internal threat, Kim Il-sung created the modern cult of personality and their militaristic culture. North Korea is thought of as an atheist state that does not tolerate religion, but this is not the case. They want the people to worship the Kim family and nothing else. Those who do not give the Kim family the proper respect can expect to receive punishment and will have a poor quality of life, even by North Korean standards. This worshipping of the dear leader allows the Kims to stop any internal challenge to their dictatorship. Their subjects consist of those who are either brainwashed hardliners in favor of the regime or those who pretend to be out of fear. Any potential insurgency or foreign powers attempting to foment resistance is stopped because no citizen would dare challenge the government. We can further see this strategy of consolidating power in Kim Jong-Il’s “military first” policy. According to CNN in 2015 North Korea had 1.1 million active soldiers and an additional 7.7 million in reserves. This could be seen as an act of deterrence. Creating such a militaristic society ensures that anyone who challenges the regime will suffer high costs.

The second part of their grand strategy is the international community’s recognition of their regime. I think it would be hard to argue that they have not achieved this goal. Kim Jong-un’s current regime is probably more repressive of its people and more internationally isolated than Saddam’s Iraq. They even have the weapons the U.S. wrongly accused Iraq of having in 2003. However, the U.S. refrains from intervening in North Korea even though our military is far superior. The obvious reason to this is China and the Soviet Union. The support of these two powers throughout the years has allowed North Korea to survive this long. However, the relationship between these countries has not been all sunshine and butterflies. North Korea knows that it can’t rely on China to protect them forever, which is why their nuclear program is so important to them. They continually engage in acts of violence and make threats so that they are not forgotten and are always taken seriously (at least as a threat).

North Korea is a belligerent nation doing everything in its power to ensure the continuation of the regime. Their economy is in shambles, they suffer from famine, and there are no signs they are undertaking measures to put their country on a productive path. To do so would run counter to everything they want to achieve. All their citizens are theirs to torment if it means the Kim family remains in power. I have heard some argue that the economic sanctions placed on North Korea do nothing but hurt the people and serve as propaganda tools for the Kims. I would take the realist approach and say that there is no way to help the North Korean people without causing suffering on a much larger scale. So I would argue for continued sanctions and more economic isolation of North Korea. At the same time I would encourage constant dialogue with them. Always letting them know that positive engagement with the U.S., South Korea, and Japan means sanction relief, while continued hostile acts leads to tougher sanctions and further detriment to their nation. Maintaining this balance and given time, I believe the Kim family will have no choice but to look for a way to make economic reforms without losing power. This could lead to a lessening of hostilities, but unfortunately I can’t see any future where the Kim’s aren’t in power that didn’t come at a very high cost.