It seems like we can’t get through a week without North Korea (or “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” if you want to use the official/ironic name) doing something to grab headlines. Just this past Tuesday, it attempted to launch yet another long-range missile for testing – and much like previous occasions, the missile failed. The North Korean nuclear program seems to have mostly been a success in regards to hurting the country. While it’s never been particularly liked by much of the international community (being the most repressive state in the world and highly aggressive towards virtually everyone tends to do that), North Korea’s international standing seems to have somehow gotten even worse under the rule of Kim Jong-Un. It says something that even China, North Korea’s staunchest ally, has agreed to further economic sanctions against it, given that the Chinese government constantly ignored previous ones. The sheer expense of a nuclear program and the poor state of the North Korean economy, which is based more on funding the military than providing essentials like food, means that another famine is almost inevitable in the near future (and it says something that even North Korean propaganda is warning citizens to prepare – albeit with the usual spin of it being necessary for “the revolution”). This has also forced the Korean People’s Army to use Cold War surplus from Russia and China despite spending at least 20% of its GDP on the military, with its sole remaining advantage over the South Korean forces being sheer numbers.
All these issues have led many to the immediate conclusion that the North Korean government is crazy, or at least irrational, for continuing its nuclear program (as well as other reasons). Closer study, however, indicates that the Kim regime is actually being very rational for doing so – it just requires a better understanding of what the government’s goals are, as well as some international relations theory.
One of the main schools of thought in the discipline of IR is neorealism, which argues that the primary goal of any state in the international system is making sure that it’s secure. How it does so tends to be a matter of debate: “defensive” neorealists like Kenneth Waltz argue that states will try to make themselves secure by focusing on survivability, while John Mearsheimer and other offensive neorealists instead believe that they’ll do so by dominating all their rivals. Defensive neorealism in particular tends to view nuclear weapons favorably, seeing them as the ultimate defense for a state – after all, no rational person would risk attacking a nuclear weapon state if it means getting nuked in return, at least in theory (in practice, though, there’s always the chance of an accident or an irrational decision). Unlike conventional armed forces, a nuclear arsenal presents an unambiguous defense against external threats, and the risk of relative power between states being misjudged is reduced to almost nil. Theorists like Waltz thus argued for decades that states should get nuclear weapons, as there’s no better way for states to defend themselves, and the Cold War demonstrated that nobody is actually crazy enough to launch them first.
While the model described above is flawed in several respects, it does seem to describe the apparent thought process behind the North Korean nuclear program quite well, and actually makes the decision seem quite rational (by the standards of a dictatorship, anyways). The main objective of the Kim regime (regardless of which one is in power) is to make sure the state and the government are secure against threats. The military, as described above, is not as much of a deterrent as the government would like – while it has sheer numbers in its favor, troops tend to be malnourished (even when accounting for the military getting priority for essentials like food) and the only equipment the government can actually purchase dates from the Cold War and likely wouldn’t match up well against the modern materiel used by South Korean and American forces. In many ways, a nuclear arsenal is preferable, since it could end up being much cheaper than standing armed forces in the long run (missiles tend to not need food, after all, and much of the cost involved is in research and development) and is just as threatening, if not more so. For North Korea, this also has the advantage of satisfying the top brass in the military, who are the only real domestic threat to Kim Jong-Un’s power and have favored a nuclear program for decades. Since the government cares more about state security than the well-being of its citizens and gives them no rights whatsoever, it’s easy for it to prioritize spending money on nukes over food – and it can easily blame the resulting famines on the nefarious West when people start to complain, since the only news sources people are allowed access to are run by the state.
The influence of the nuclear program on North Korean relations with the rest of the world can also be rationalized in this way. Yes, it has gotten to the point of being the most heavily sanctioned state in the world, but it doesn’t really matter so long as China keeps trading with North Korea. Even the most recent sanctions, which have Chinese support, may not be as detrimental as many think: it can always rely on the income of workers sent abroad to Russia and the Middle East (by which I mean taking virtually everything they earn and leaving them on the brink of starvation) and all the black market trading that occurs over the western border with China. It’s also likely that Beijing will remain willing to support North Korea in the event of an actual military conflict (provided that it’s not the aggressor), since it seems to prioritize having a buffer between its own territory and US-friendly South Korea and Japan. It could also be argued that the nuclear program drawing US attention and getting it to negotiate with the North Korean government was intentional, since it basically forced the US to acknowledge and give it a semblance of legitimacy in the process.
So if the North Korean nuclear program is based on rational planning, does that mean it’s not a danger? Obviously not – there have been plenty of close calls involving nuclear weapons in the past with other states, and there’s no reason to think that Kim Jong-Un can’t end up in a position where he thinks launching a nuclear missile at the South or Japan is his best option. Besides, it’s fairly clear that despite the logic underpinning the decision to develop nuclear weapons, North Korea is just as aggressive as ever, since there’s almost no other way to interpret launching test missiles at the neighbours. What it does indicate is that North Korea should not be treated as just the crazy state with nuclear weapons, but as a rational state that will do whatever its government feels is necessary to keep itself in power.