Understanding North Korea’s Motives

By Danny Lam

The question of DPRK’s motives for acquiring a nuclear arsenal is central to the current debate about international security.

Motives are ephemeral constructs that are difficult to assess. To wit, historians are still debating the motives of leaders of Germany, Japan, Britain, France, and US as to why they entered WWII.

But without an effort to understand DPRK’s motives, it is impossible to craft a viable set of policies.

Coming just 10 days before the NATO head of state summit meeting, DPRK’s test of an intermediate range Hwasong-12 missile on May 14 was a landmark event that indisputably demonstrated their ability to reach targets within 4,500km. The technical ramifications of this test of a single stage missile based on an indigenously developed engine quantitatively and qualitatively increased the credibility of the North Korean threat.

A careful reading of the KCNA statement that used terms like “large-size heavy nuclear warhead”, “new-type high-thrust rocket engine”, and other statements that suggest they have systematically solved (or are solving) the problems with subsystems involved in a nuclear weapon delivered by ICBM.

Studies of the long term behavior of DPRK over decades their behavior across a range of issues ranging from formal DPRK involvement recently in robbing central banks, narcotics manufacture and smuggling, kidnapping of foreign nationals abroad, targeted killings, counterfeit currency printing and distribution, arms exports, missile proliferation, nuclear weapons exports, cyber extortion, and sensitive material exports show the genetic code of the regime see nothing beyond them historically and right up to the present.

Should we even mention that DPRK is widely suspected to be still holding allied POWs from the Korean war?

This is a regime that certainly have no concern about warfare as a profitable enterprise.   Indeed, the “WannaCry” ramsomware is in the process of being explicitly linked to the DPRK’s cyberwarfare teams.

DPRK behavior – the long term, sustained and widespread, formal use of military capabilities – for the purpose of extortion by a government that is not a failed state has no precedence in modern history since 1945.

Extortion is the use of force or threat of force to obtain money, property. It is fundamentally and legally distinct from blackmail.   (Bracken, 2017).   Nuclear blackmail has precedence with Israel’s threat to use nuclear weapons unless they received urgent conventional arms aid during the Yom Kippur War.

Nuclear extortion has no known precedence EXCEPT DPRK.

Reviewing the regime long historical evidence of DPRK behavior, when set in the context of the history and traditions of Northeast Asia, it is as obvious as night and day to all but the priesthood of Korean “handlers” and “arms control advocates” that motives for North Korea’s WMD, Missile, and Nuclear Weapons program since 2011 materially changed.

DPRK’s nuclear arsenal program being explicitly motivated by extortion and economic gain — rather than regime survival like every other nuclear weapons state is alien to the North Korean analyst priesthood.

If we assume that DPRK did not make enormous sacrifices internally to fund their accelerated nuclear arsenal programs (as Zulfikar Ali Bhutto said, “Eat Grass”), and we take seriously the indisputable evidence of an INCREASE in the standard of living in DPRK under Kim Jong Un — particularly for the military and security elite in and around Pyongyang, then money had to have come from somewhere.

The question is where?

The default explanation is a significant and material injection of economic resources at least in the USD billions range into DPRK must have happened somehow since about 2013.   It is hard to believe that Pakistan, jihadists, Syria, or non-state actors would so fund DPRK at this level. Or that funds of this scale could have been raised by traditional DPRK state sponsored criminal and other enterprises (e.g. North Korean restaurants abroad).

It could have been raised by being a major player in the global narcotics trade, but we are seeing no signs of such mass movements of physical commodities, be it product or cash).   There had to be wealthy patrons that most likely, are a middle power state or parts of such a state that have the capacity for such wealth transfers.

Likewise, the “product” or “service” sold by DPRK must be of such a nature as to be readily exportable because it is small, compact, easy to smuggle — like data from simulations and drawings on a flash card.

Nuclear arsenal and missile technology fits this bill nearly perfectly as a sanction buster.

Few in the arms control community have recognized that circa 2014, when the US began to lift sanctions on Iran and enabled them to access USD tens of billions of wealth was, curiously, directly correlated with DPRK acquiring state of the art tooling, equipment, and systems to forward their weapons programs.

And to conduct a series of expensive tests despite the tightening of sanctions.

DPRK motives for acquisition of nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and WMDs do not conform to previous nuclear arsenal states. If DPRK’s motives under Kim Jong Un was solely an “insurance policy” against existential threats to the regime, that goal could have been achieved with a modest, but credible nuclear arsenal similar to what Israel or Pakistan developed.

Neither went the next step to developing long range MRBM or ICBMs.

What are the economic & political impetus then?

Sometime after Kim Jong Un assumed power in 2012, North Korea’s behavior, posture, and pattern changed abruptly. Economic reforms that were long stalled by Kim Jong Il was revived, resulted in an explosion of state capitalism similar to what the southern Chinese provinces experienced circa 1978.

Prior “opening” reforms under Kim Jong Il was ad hoc responses to the famine and hardships brought about in the 1990s by the collapse of their Soviet patrons and the unwillingness of Beijing-China to continually expand subsidies.

After Kim Jong Un consolidated power, these initiatives have become a more or less permanent feature — with concomitant benefits no different than the explosion of wealth and incomes seen in PRC, Russia and former Soviet Republics, and everywhere communist regimes based on the early 20th Century model abandoned tightly controlled central planning and severe limits on private enterprise.

Today, the image of a starving, Stalinist DPRK of 1994-98 that staggered under sanctions is no more appropriate than an image of Shenzhen, PRC in 1984 at the height of the Cultural Revolution in 1967.

What are the political consequences of the Kim Jong Un economic reforms?

For one, it accelerated the loss of formal control over the regime as officials from top to bottom discovered that their position and power translates into rent-seeking opportunities.   That be the case whether it is the border guards that took a fee for letting goods through (both exporting and importing), to the officials that control people, facilities, resources, knowhow, etc. who all of a sudden, are free to flog their resources to anyone willing to pay them or work with them (aka joint venture).   P

RC managed this very same transition with the PLA/N going into business for themselves.

That be the case whether it is the setting up of factories in DPRK that are “contractors” for firms in PRC, who are in turn, selling the goods worldwide, or the export of DPRK labor (a traditional cash earner for the regime). Such opportunities, however, are not evenly distributed throughout the DPRK regime.

What about the sectors that are left behind?

The largest and most critical sectors that are left behind are the military and security forces (beside the party and government) upon which Kim Jong Un depend on for his grip on power. The opening up that saw wealth flow to other (formerly less influential officials like border guards and managers of run-on-the-mill state owned enterprises) at the expense of the bureaucracy and military.

Where have we seen this before?

This is virtually a cookie cutter description of what happened in PRC circa 1989 just prior to Tiananmen, when the opening of the economy and inflationary pressures brought on by new found wealth impoverished the traditional privileged class of senior officials who did not have rent seeking opportunities.

Recall that the proximate cause of Tiananmen protests was students who’s elite, privileged parents got them into the most prestigious institution in PRC after they themselves survived grueling exams discovered that, a) they were not getting what they expected in cushy jobs in the bureaucracy; b) even if they did, inflation made the “iron rice bowl job” reward nominal;   c) “lesser” people who did not have their connections and paper qualifications are surpassing them in opportunities and outcomes.

The upending of the established pathway to wealth, power, and success by economic reforms in PRC nearly collapsed the regime.  It was fortuitous that when the PLA was called to restore order in Beijing, they obeyed and the regime survived.

Kim Jong Un’s DPRK no doubt saw this direct parallel. His father, for the same reasons, resisted economic reforms for these reasons to the very end.

But Kim Join Un is different.  

He was Swiss educated in one of the wealthiest countries in the world, where he is exposed to wealth and riches that are unimaginable in DPRK for all but the elite ruling clans. He more likely have some language abilities beyond Korean, possibly English, French, or German.   What’s more, as a member of the ruling elite, he had first-hand experience and access to the explosion of electronics, games, communications, and outside influences well before he assumed leadership of the Dynasty.

Kim Jong Un, like his assassinated brother, had no illusions as to how backward and perilous the regime he inherited was and is.

Economic reforms by Kim brought not just newfound riches but also political problems in a Stalinist system. Wealth are expressed in many different ways, from more freedom, more (and deeper) penetration of knowledge about the outside world and culture into DPRK. As recently as 2005, it was a big deal and the height of luxury to have access to old (obsolete / junked) Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs) to be imported from China and Japan, with tapes of South Korean shows smuggled in.

Today, that is largely displaced by the smuggling of portable media players, content on flash memory sticks and SD cards. A significant portion of the population is well within broadcast range for cell phone and data transmissions, let alone other broadcasts, and have easy access to the means to receive and enjoy such “forbidden” content such as the latest K-Pop shows.

No doubt illicit wireless repeaters easily sourced from China have extended the reach of South Korean, PRC, Japanese, and Russian wireless to much of DPRK.   DPRK, as of 2011, is no longer a “Hermit Kingdom”.

The greater concern faced by the Kim Jong Un regime is that such opening up not only create new wealth and centers of power outside of the formal state system, but it places the DPRK regime in direct competition with the new “private” enterprises and the couture of state capitalist officials being enriched by new opportunities.

Each of these are a potential threat to his power and regime.

Regime stalwarts in the military, security services and government have to be adequately compensated beyond what can be extracted in monopoly rents or taxes from the economy.   Otherwise, Kim Jong Un’s DPRK risk a Tiananmen. The old days of Kim Jong Il when scarce foreign products like imported brandy etc. served as an adequate bribe is over.

Kim Jong Un had to do better, and fast.

KCNA extensively cataloged how Kim Jong Un did inspection tours of facilities once he assumed and consolidated power. Western trained analysts often laughed at these events as crass propaganda exercises of Kim being taken to Potemkin Villages as his father was for decades. But what if there is more to this?

A look at the propaganda and how it changed revealed how Kim initially inspected the standard KWP showcases that made food, etc. and then moving to him inspecting military units.   Standard socialist fare until 2013.

A very telling tale was how Kim Jong Un visited a Missile Factory in 2013 and “angrily demanded” that the plant be updated with state-of-the-art robotics, CNC machines, etc. which was promptly done, resulting in a precision metals manufacturing capability that is more than adequate for their missile programs that was evident during his next inspection.   It would be farcical to presume that the young Kim would not have the wherewithal and language skills to access the web to see published photos and catalogs of advanced manufacturing facilities of manufacturers like Samsung.

Or to think that the Swiss educated Kim could not recall how a tiny country manufactured a range of ultra-high tech goods and services.

Kim recognize that DPRK economy inherited from his father is well behind the times. And he had the capacity to look, see by just consulting material found on the internet.

Turning to the next problem beyond the absolute priority of holding onto power. Sanctions notwithstanding, if DPRK is to spend on importing high tech equipment, training, expertise, and development, however, must realize a profit in some way shape or form so as to provide rewards and maintain the loyalty of Kim’s power bases.

While no public estimate is available, clearly, the DPRK missile and nuclear programs must have had significant costs at least since Kim’s reign.

In the modern history of costly (and relatively unusable) weapons development programs like ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons by all but the wealthiest, largest nations, financing and funding these programs have proven to be a budget busting burden.

Thus, it is not a surprise that strategic cost sharing partners are sought after.  

France benefitted from the US experience in acquiring nuclear weapons, Beijing China had no compunction about aiding Pakistan up to and including transferring Chinese weapons designs.   Other states, like Israel, with a perfectly straight face, sold missile technology to Taiwan, and worked with South Africa for nuclear weapons development. Beyond these formal, state-to-state deals, there is the precedent of the Abdul Aadeer Khan network that sold nuclear capabilities to any customer with cash before he was stopped:   Libya, North Korea, Iran, PRC.

Is it even plausible that DPRK can undertake such programs without a clear, substantial profit motive and pathway to riches?

DPRK motives for acquiring a credible nuclear arsenal with the capacity to strike anywhere in the world (including the United States and Western Europe) is both current profit (paid by regimes like Iran) that is essential for rewarding the regime loyalists, and almost certainly with that, for purposes of extortion in the future against any and all states.

It changes our calculus as to what is likely to be an acceptable outcome to DPRK if the US and Allies do not develop a viable military option.

Clearly, de-nuclearization in any way, shape or form is off the table for DPRK.

Can DPRK stop at just developing a nuclear arsenal?

What to do when clients like Iran are no longer willing to pay billions for nuclear weapons and missiles from DPRK?

What will they sell then?

What will the Kim Jong Un regime do to bring in cash for the next round?

To see the dangers from DPRK and what policy options must be acquired, we must speculate as to what his next move will be.

If Kim Jong Un failed to raise the living standards of his core power base, he is history.

The question is how?

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One response to “Understanding North Korea’s Motives”

  1. iam he says:

    No nation wants or needs nuclear weapons except to deter belligerent, threatening, enemy governments from attacking.

    So then, what are we doing? and why?

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