Tradition and rebellion: What is happening in Pyongyang?

This week’s missile launch by North Korea is the latest in a line of tests exacerbating tensions with its neighbours and adversaries. Yuk-Kuen Annie Cheung examines Kim Jong-un’s recent behaviour for insight into how North Korea is conducting its foreign policy. 

By: /
August 4, 2016
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the 3rd Meeting of Activists of the Korean People's Army in the Movement for Winning the Title of O Jung Hup-led 7th Regiment in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on August 4, 2016. KCNA/ via REUTERS

Early Wednesday, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea once again ignored the United Nations ban issued against it and test-fired two ballistic missiles off the Sea of Japan (also known as the East Sea and Korean East Sea). This time, one missile landed inside Japan's Exclusive Economic Zone, an apparent first.

Japan protested strongly against the launch, and the United States echoed with condemnation. 

On July 8, the U.S. reached a bilateral agreement to deploy an advanced U.S. missile defence system in South Korea. North Korea opposed this vehemently and declared the U.S.-South Korea agreement a provocation. Was this week’s missile launch the “physical response” alluded to by North Korea in its protest? What is its ultimate goal?

In 2004, I had a surprising opportunity to visit North Korea – one of the world’s last true pariah states, so isolated for its multiple and prolonged misdemeanors, not least towards its own people, that “hermit kingdom” seems only factual, without hyperbole or intent to offend.

It is remarkable that North Korea has stood apart from the rest of the world for so long. Ever since its tie with the Soviet Union came undone with the perestroika and glasnost reforms of the 1980s, North Korea has had to depend more and more on the sometimes doddering patronage of China. Meanwhile, it continues to isolate itself, especially in regional politics. Its insistence on conducting “satellite launches” and nuclear weapon tests in defiance of repeated UN resolutions only emphasizes its determination to play by its own rules. This blocks the possibility of becoming a so-called normal country in the community of nations. 

What a price to pay for a small country, and what danger this isolation poses to the rest of us.

A bubble of optimism, burst

When Kim Jong-un came to power in December 2011, there was much speculation about the trajectory of his regime. With his early Swiss education, he was initially judged optimistically by Western commentators. They speculated that, finally, the person at the helm would appreciate freedom and its liberating effects as enjoyed to a much larger degree in the remainder of the world.

Soon, the optimists were disappointed by a series of disturbing events. To date, there have been at least two nuclear device tests, and the Yongbyon plutonium enrichment plants have been restarted; these actions contravened UN resolutions and international agreement. In parallel development was the expansion of the satellite-cum-missile launch program, which according to experts is basically the same technology in structure, engines and fuel, and missiles are delivery systems with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons capabilities. In addition to the medium-range Rodong ballistic missiles launched on Wednesday, Kim has also claimed success in launching the Unha ballistic missile and the Musudan intermediate-range missile. Evidently, these launch attempts had employed mobile launchers on land, and at least one from a submarine.

Since Kim Jong-un became North Korea's leader, several senior government officials have been executed, and numerous arrests of foreigners have led to imprisonment, after very brief and public trials. Many of these foreigners were Christian missionaries whose work was previously allowed for quite some time.

On the economic front, the recent nuclear provocation has resulted in the stoppage of all manufacturing in the inter-Korea Kaesong industrial complex, a North-South economic co-operation project.

These events have definitely burst the bubble of optimism around the young Kim. Many analysts have mistakenly confused Kim’s exposure to freedoms with a desire to share that freedom with others. Kim Jong-un is certainly rebellious in the manner of a spoiled North American teenager (I wonder if Beijing has had the same thought), but that does not make him generous or any less authoritarian. If anything, he must have a keen sense of his privilege, having seen the Swiss Alps as well as Mount Paektu.

A change in guiding principles

In May, North Korea convened the seventh National Congress of the ruling Workers’ Party in Pyongyang. Such a Congress is a rare event, the last being held in 1980, before the birth of Kim Jong-un. To no one's surprise, he was confirmed as the Supreme Leader (Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea), like his father and his grandfather before him.

One action at the Congress stands out, however. Kim declared North Korea a nuclear state, and adopted the "Byongjin" policy: economic development through a Five Year Plan, plus nuclear capability. Clearly Kim Jong-il’s “military first” policy appears to have gone by the wayside.

I have no authoritative answers for these tensions – specifically, the desire to take on the mantle of his grandfather while striking out in different, although probably irreconcilable, directions. How could this new plan work? Squaring the objective of growing the economy while inviting additional sanctions and economic isolation – possibly even from their “lips and teeth” sponsor across the Yalu?

In North Korea, basic needs for sustenance and human development are secondary to the emphasis on an endemic fear created by the narrative of a hostile world outside. As such, building a strong “defence” becomes paramount. Acute insecurity underpins the disproportionate allocation of resources to the ruling class, to the military and to nuclear weapons proliferation. A strong display of loyalty to the leadership is also important as in wartime.

Simultaneously, the absence of a fully running market economy renders citizens incapable of pursuing freedom of choice. Judging by speeches made at the Congress and the manner in which the international press was treated, mass censorship remains a significant tool for garnering power and sustaining power projection. In addition, the latest developments highlight the current North Korean leadership’s blinkered focus on unilateralism. As this carries on, one worries about the future of both the Peninsula and the region

North Korea and the world

Pyongyang has, for over half a century, remained single-mindedly an outlier, and over time its disturbingly oppressive tendencies have varied only in degree. So what has changed, if anything?

What is critical to the rest of the world, and to global security, is Pyongyang’s potentially growing strategic capabilities – namely in the form of missile-development, longer in range and perhaps even (or someday soon) nuclear-capable. The tests seem to be failing less, or less badly. What is also a concern, if less new, is the infighting among neighbours in the region that stands in the way of collective response or rhetoric (although these dynamics – between and among Tokyo, Seoul, Washington and maybe one day Beijing – may be improving somewhat).

North Korea may also feel itself in good authoritarian company with countries that refuse to cooperate with the international community, like Russia. Another human rights pariah, Iran, was able to hold out for the day when it could potentially decide again to enrich weapons grade uranium – even if it will only be after a 10-plus years’ pause.

Conversely, any balanced assessment should include the regime’s real interests (preventing economic collapse) and its quirks.

In late February, Russia was clearly upset with the proposed UN Security Council Resolution that would have adversely impacted its economic and financial interests and bi-lateral arrangements with North Korea. China did not oppose the resolution, to add insult to injury in Moscow.

However, when the U.S. issued sanctions on Kim Jong-un and 10 of his officials on grounds of alleged complicity in human rights abuse against the North Korean people, China announced that it opposed these sanctions. And both North Korea and the South China Sea were on the agenda between China’s foreign minister and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

The elephant in the room in Pyongyang may be that this small country unwittingly or perhaps willingly has become a proxy in complex geopolitics among much bigger fish. Perhaps the North Korean leader is less myopic or megalomaniacal than we think. Rather, he may be realistic in believing that the only way he can keep and hold attention is to annoy like the rebellious teenager or else to provoke like an old-world warrior emperor jealous of his kingdom.

In any case, we ought to pay closer attention.