Kim’s North Korea: Illusions of Chaos in a Realist Regime

The disappearance of Kim Jong-Un in April 2020 prompted frenzied, sensationalized speculation as to the whereabouts and condition of the North Korean dictator. After failing to appear for “The Day of the Sun” — North Korea’s most important holiday honoring the birth of Kim Il-Sung and marking the beginning of the North Korean calendar year — a myriad of rumors spread across social media. Perhaps years of overindulgence in alcohol, cheese, and cigarettes had caught up with the 36-year-old despot, leaving him in cardiovascular distress. Even without any “reported” cases in the hermit kingdom, perhaps Kim was diligently social distancing due to coronavirus. Perhaps internal dissent had boiled over after years of brutal repression and Kim finally found himself on the wrong side of a coup. International media quickly jumped on the idea of Kim’s sister, Yo-Jong, the head of the North Korean propaganda bureau, inheriting power from her sickly brother. Despite the media hype, the “Supreme Leader” appeared in public on May 2, 2020 in celebration of the opening of a fertilizer factory. In this latest quandary in North Korea, a familiar characteristic reared its head: the illusion of chaos veiling a highly strategic regime with legitimate, albeit dangerous, political goals.

North Korea’s greatest political leverage lies in its nuclear weapons program. I argue that the timeline of development of North Korea’s nuclear program reflects the Kim family’s intentionally chaotic foreign policy. North Korea’s habitual defiance of international nuclear legislation paired with an inclination to engage in diplomatic negotiations suggests a deliberately indecisive foreign policy that results in equally fluctuant policy from the U.S. Without a consistent policy from the U.S. that sufficiently deters long-term development, North Korea under the Kim dynasty has been able to advance their nuclear program, bringing the world dangerously close to the possibility of nuclear conflict.

“Kim statues, Pyongyang” by Tormod Sandtorv is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

In 1985, North Korea ratified the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the baseline agreement towards halting the spread of nuclear weapons, and in 1992, both Koreas agreed to ban nuclear weapons testing and development as well as uranium enrichment. However, in 2002 and 2003, the regime admitted to running a covert nuclear weapons program despite the NPT, bilateral agreements, and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) monitoring. Between 2003 and 2005, North Korea participated in the Six Party talks (between China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the U.S.) and committed to forgoing nuclear weapons, only to begin nuclear tests in October of 2006. The next ten years can be boiled down to empty denuclearization commitments from North Korea in exchange for periodically eased sanctions, food aid and the release of frozen assets, only for North Korea to, again, test its ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. 

Many wonder, and rightly so, is there a logic to North Korea’s ever fluctuating and maddening flip-flopping? Looking past the apparent absurdity of repeatedly flouted treaties and threats of “military action,” it appears as though North Korea under the Kim dynasty closely adheres to the international relations theory of “realism.” International relations scholars offer contending paradigms to explain the behavior of states in terms of war, military development, diplomacy and trade agreements. Realism is one of these core models. 

Realism draws upon a profound historical tradition from Thucydides in Ancient Greece to Niccolò Machiavelli in Renaissance Italy to Thomas Hobbes in 17th CE England. Hobbes cemented the basis of the realist perspective on human nature in his seminal 1651 work, Leviathan, writing that “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” From the premise that men are inherently self-interested, paranoid and prone to violence, it follows that the political states that men govern will also exemplify the same tendencies. At the core of a realist view is that in this cruel “Hobbesian” world, characterized by the absence of objective morality and inevitable conflict, states will pursue power above all else. Power is the only guarantee of survival in this paradigm. The result is an international system of individual states vying for dominance without any higher authority that can force states to abide by regulations and laws. To realists, the prescriptions of the United Nations (U.N.) and frameworks of international law are fundamentally voluntary and easily ignored given that save for the Security Council, most U.N. resolutions are non-binding.

Realists claim that as a result of the anarchy and lack of certainty found in international relations, the only behavioural constant for states is to strive for individual power and survival. The bottom line is that the only goal of a successful realist leader is ensuring that their state has longevity and power is the best way to ensure this longevity. To realists, power is the means of survival. Case in point, the plethora of treaties that North Korea has consciously violated in favour of nuclear testing and development is congruent with the pursuit of power in a realist context. North Korea objectively gains power by maintaining a nuclear weapons arsenal.

Power can take many forms: increased military presence, hegemonic clout and economic prowess all qualify. Realist states pursue individual strategic goals in the pursuit of power so as to achieve a sense of security in being more powerful than their rivals. Recognizing the primacy of power and survival to a realist regime adds clarity to our understanding of North Korea. Following the armistice of the Korean war in 1953, North Korea has aggressively pursued nuclear weapons as a way to guarantee its survival. A nuclear war involving North Korea, the U.S., China and respective allies is unthinkable, whereas a ground invasion into a denuclearized North Korea seems more conceivable. Nuclear weapon capability is therefore the only mechanism Kim has to maintain any semblance of longevity for North Korea. The result of nuclear proliferation is a quasi-stable equilibrium known as mutually assured destruction: if two nuclear states go to war the result would be global annihilation, ergo military conflict is mutually avoided by the West and North Korea.

Kim’s regime understandably does not trust the U.S., Japan and South Korea not to invade them should denuclearization occur. With survival in jeopardy, North Korea perceives any small concessions like eased sanctions or continued trade with China while keeping their nuclear arsenal as a maintenance of power. No matter Washington’s promises of aid, trade and a seat at the table, to denuclearize creates a power imbalance that puts North Korea at incredible risk —risk that realist leaders are hard-wired to reject.

In a nuclear realist system, no matter how egregious North Korea’s human rights abuses or how inflammatory Kim’s rhetoric, war is functionally impossible. The West would rather tolerate a bellicose, hot and cold North Korean regime than a nuclear war. And so, with regard to its place in the international sphere, North Korea continually disproves the efficacy of international treaties, diplomatic negotiations, sanctions, and the United Nations. North Korea speaks the language of realism: military power. 

In 2017, Trump tweeted that “Being nice to Rocket Man hasn’t worked in 25 years, why would it work now?” only to participate in a 2018 summit with Kim in Singapore that prompted a friendly slant in Trump’s rhetoric towards the despot. Following the Singapore summit, Trump tweeted that “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” calling his meeting with Kim “an interesting and very positive experience.” Case in point, even Trump, the President of the United States, has shown a poignantly inconsistent attitude towards North Korea, compounding an already muddy foreign policy towards the state, all to North Korea’s advantage. 

“President Trump’s Trip to Vietnam” by The White House is marked with CC PDM 1.0

North Korea is easy to condemn as rogue or unpredictable, and it is tempting to ignore recent brinkmanship towards South Korea, where North Korea has threatened war with the South. But it is important to look beyond the smoke and mirrors at the state’s rational, realist calculus of engaging in talks with the West only to double down on military action shortly afterwards. The Trump-Kim summits of 2018 and 2019 were hailed as opportunities for denuclearization and a new era of U.S.-North Korea relations, but ended without any substantive change. Kim appears to be working towards mending North Korea’s international reputation while holding his prized nuclear weapons close to his chest, for without nuclear weapons, the chance of a conventional war with a U.S. and South Korean military coalition is all the more likely. This outcome is out of the question from the standpoint of  North Korea.

What does realism have to do with Kim Jong-Un’s spring hiatus? The same as what it means in relation to his 41-day unexplained disappearance in 2014 and Kim Jong Il’s unexplained absence for 80 days in 2008. In all likelihood, Kim’s whereabouts was trivial — perhaps he was simply avoiding large crowds as Covid-19 spread. But the crucial takeaway is  that North Korean media offering no rationale for Kim’s condition for the three weeks before his appearance at the fertilizer factory opening drives home the notion that to a realist state, domestic politics and foreign speculation do not factor into its strategic calculus. It is futile to try to interpret his disappearance the same way one might try to analyze the actions of President Trump or other political leaders. In other words, international politics is a domain of objectivity for North Korea: weapons, economic leverage and territory are the only stakeholders. Kim’s disappearance from the spotlight is akin to his hot and cold nuclear policy. Simply put, each political decision comes down to weighing the impacts on North Korea’s power.

While the disappearance of the head of government or the development of nuclear weapons despite international sanctions may appear a confusing decision, the subjective interpretation of North Korea’s perceived power is irrelevant to Kim. The notion of the highest ranking political leader in the U.S. or the U.K. vanishing from the public eye is absurd, but to a realist state, speculation does not drive foreign policy decisions. The North reckons that if it maintains tangible metrics of power — namely nuclear weapons, an aggressive military presence, and a rejection of Western institutions like the U.N. — that’s all that matters for increasing the odds of long-term survival. The realist Kim dynasty has wagered that if war comes between the hermit kingdom and the West, it will be on the basis of relative power differences, not media speculation. Kim Jong-Un is not irrational and North Korea is not unstable, the “supreme leader” just does not factor in the presentation of a clear and consistent foreign policy as a means to ensure power and survival. 

Image released by Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) of Kim Jong Un attending the opening of a fertilizer plant on May 2, 2020. KCNA/via REUTERS

Going forward, a recognition, but not acceptance, of North Korea’s legitimate strategic aims — possessing nuclear weapons, ameliorating troubled economic conditions and keeping a seat at the great power table — would benefit American policy. Is North Korea a dangerous state? Certainly. Is it an irrational one? Certainly not. A comprehensive understanding of the logic of a realist state would lend itself to an American response that develops policy beyond international treaties, lifting and placing sanctions, and hoping that North Korea will have a sudden change of heart. As for what’s next? That’s the million dollar question. The reality is that as long as the U.S., Russia, China, France, the U.K., India, Pakistan and Israel have nuclear weapons, we should not expect Kim to dismantle his nuclear program in good faith. North Korea perceives itself as backed into a corner by Western powers and considering the primacy of survival and power to the regime, a Western approach that is consistent, firm and cognizant of realism ought to be implemented.