David Miller Online: What Motivates North Korea?
North Korea has always been an enigma ever since it was created at the end of the Second World War. It has refused any attempt to fully join the international system, opting to preserve its Stalinist system behind a veil of secrecy that for over fifty years has left many around the world confused as to why it chooses to behave it does and what the Kim regime hopes to achieve each time it makes overtures of war and creates an international incident. This latest crisis has once again raised concerns of instability on the Korean Peninsula and a possible outbreak of war although the problem this time is that nuclear weapons are involved. As always, the question is why.
The answer to this question lies in Pyongyang’s ongoing desire to create instability in the Northeast Asian region and create the impression of fear that surrounds its unpredictability. Without having the benefit of insight inside North Korea itself it is almost impossible to ascertain for certain why Kim Jong-il has chosen to embark on this course. Therefore it is a fair assumption to suggest that such posturing is there to give the North Korean regime its leverage when dealing with the US, South Korea or any other state. North Korea has no economic power or any diplomatic strength and in a world where even China has developed relations with the rest of the world, it is likely that the Kim regime will do anything it can to preserve its position.
The theories that are currently abounding are that this latest crisis is designed to deflect attention from the domestic situation in North Korea or to put pressure on the new South Korean government. It has been suggested that the North Koreans are playing this new game of brinkmanship to gain more economic aid from the US and this is feasible given that the last time the North shut down its reactor, the Clinton Administration gave substantial financial aid and there was a thaw in diplomatic relations. These are all very credible reasons, however I suspect that there is another force at work here. Given this lack of monetary wealth, one would have expected the regime to collapse many years ago. It is possible that China provides economic support given that it is North Korea’s closest ally but the fact is that Kim il-Sung made certain he survived the fall of the Soviet Union and onset of globalisation. He was able to pass that power to his son and heir Kim Jong-il and the reason for this survival lies in the power of the military.
The United States estimates that North Korea’s armed forces are the third largest in the world. The military has been responsible for a well-tested ballistic missile programme that has produced missiles that can reach Japan and which have been shipped to various countries around the world. This is linked to the nuclear development that not only makes for potential foreign exchange earner but also allows those senior military officers a powerful voice in regional and world affairs.
In a previous column I suggested that the governments in North Korea and China were able to survive the winds of change that swept through the international system due to the effective employment of a model known as the ‘penetration model’. Under this system, the military was created from within the Communist Party and has been penetrated at each level of its rank by party officials. This ensures that the party is able to maintain control at all levels and any dissent can be detected and dealt with. It also ensures that the party is able to infuse the military with its ideology at all times and the psychological control in never lost.
Given this new development, I feel compelled to revise that theory somewhat. I still believe that the penetration model is in place and has not changed. What has changed is the outcome. Rather than the Communist Party controlling the military agenda, the opposite has occurred. The military is dictating to Kim Jong-il who needs their support if his regime is to remain in power. The North Korean military will be the losers should its arms industries be placed into decline or suspended completely. If a diplomatic solution is found with the South or even a hint of re-unification then it will certainly be the North that makes the most concessions or is absorbed completely and that is not a prospect that the military would welcome. Hence I suggest that it is the North Korean military prompting this latest crisis and using it to further their own aims and survival. After all, power still grows from the barrel of the gun.