Five assumptions we make about North Korea – and why they’re wrong

An abridged version of this article was published in The Conversation, 28 September 2017.

In the outdoor section of the Seoul War Memorial Museum, you will find a battery of American-made Cold War era MIM-23 surface-to-air missiles on display.  Today, you are more likely to see photos of this display as the lead graphic for stories on North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.  The obvious visual association with such stories is that these are North Korean missiles.  This misrepresentation is symptomatic of misconceptions about North Korea that perpetuate in the public consciousness.

As Northeast Asia teeters on the brink of a conflict that could escalate beyond anyone’s control, it is more important than ever that democratic citizens and policy-makers alike are well-informed about the DPRK and can move beyond the common caricatures of Kim Jong Un and North Korea.

  1. The “Crazy Kim” hypothesis

In the 2004 comedy film Team America, Kim Jong Il was portrayed as a vengeful, foul-mouthed buffoon-like sociopath.  Team America’s Kim Jong Il is illustrative of a popular view of North Korea both feeds and is fed by the perception that the Kim regime is irrational, crazy and evil.  This caricature is a poor foundation on which to build a North Korea policy.

Proponents of this view point to the Kim regime’s horrendous human rights record and the Orwellian social controls put in place to maintain the Kim’s at the head of the country’s unique authoritarian political system.  While the coercive arms of the DPRK state have been responsible for crimes against the North Korean people that could be considered as “evil,” evil itself does not suffice as an explanation for why the regime engages in these practices.  The “why” is important because it feeds information into risk analyses and pinpoints leverage points for strategic interactions with the DPRK regime.

We don’t have to like this logic or agree on its strategic utility to see that there is rational strategy at work.  We need to locate Kim Jong Un and his regime within the context of the complex incentives and constraints of North Korea’s inter-woven political, economic, cultural and ecological systems.

It is useful to step back from the whirlwind of recent developments to place the current situation in the broader context of North Korea’s regime survival strategy. The regime’s brutal human rights record is a result of measures to consolidate its internal power.

Over time, the Kim family has become adept at “coup-proofing” its rule by playing off potential institutional rivals against each other and purging individuals when become too prominent within the institutional hierarchy.  The tentacles of the regime’s coercive power reach down all the way from institutions into people’s everyday lives through surveillance, social controls and ideological indoctrination.  It is a brutal reality that these kinds of oppressive measures are the rational and predictable way politics is practiced in authoritarian dictatorships.

  1. The “irrational Kim” hypothesis

This also means that we should pause before equating North Korea’s human rights abuses with any perceived irrationality in Pyongyang’s external relations.  The over-riding priority underpinning North Korea foreign policy remains regime survival and the perpetuation of the Kim family dynasty.

Here one needs to understand the unique logic of North Korean foreign policy.  To this end, Pyongyang sees hard military power as the only reliable means of guaranteeing its security.  North Korea’s foreign policy behaviour generally emphasises the utility of military force as its only credible security guarantee in what it perceives to be a strategically hostile environment.  Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities are the ultimate practical expressions of this world-view.

When we analyse North Korea’s behaviour from the perspective of their own premises, we can recognise the logic of their actions.  That does not mean that we agree with that logic, but it does give us a more informed foundation upon which to respond to those actions.

  1. Falling for North Korea’s bombastic official statements

Coverage of North Korea and its nuclear program often seems to take place in a parallel universe where the overwhelming military power disparity between the DPRK and the United States does not exist.

The Trump administration’s position appears to view the North Korean leadership as evil and unpredictable, buying into the logic of the “crazy Kim” meme.  It sees a clear and imminent threat to the United States in the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and propaganda from Pyongyang that consistently threatens the US with annihilation. It is easy to be seduced by fear induced from the worst-case projections of the “crazy Kim” hypothesis, however the strategic logic of that position just doesn’t add up.

Korean Central News Agency and associated propaganda organs of the DPRK have a long history of threatening the United States, South Korea and Japan with destruction. However, we should bear in mind that inflammatory rhetoric is a tool of weakness, not strength.

Let’s think this through logically: North Korea is a small, isolated and economically-weak country surrounded by larger, prosperous and militarily sophisticated powers. Its government has very limited sources of leverage through which to ensure its survival.  Projecting fear through muscular tough-talk is one of its tried-and-tested strategies for ratcheting up the risk premium for any external power that might consider attacking the regime.

When we understand the strategic purpose of this kind of rhetoric from the perspective of regime survival, we can apply the required grain of salt to the level of risk we associate to these rhetorical threats.  This is not at all to dismiss North Korea as a threat, but to interpret that threat in its proper context.

  1. Capabilities and intentions are not the same thing

North Korea’s other lever of power projection is of course its nuclear weapons program.  Here the key point is to emphasise that military capabilities do not automatically equate to the intention to use them.  We need more information beyond the raw capabilities of North Korea’s military technologies to perform a thorough risk assessment.

The North’s nuclear tests and missile launches can be understood from the perspective of deterrence. As noted above, analysis of North Korean strategy over a long period of time suggests that its leadership is overwhelmingly concerned with its survival and sees itself as needing nuclear weapons to secure itself in a hostile strategic environment.  A North Korean first-strike against the US or its regional allies would inevitably invite an overwhelming retaliation from Washington that would end the regime.

Unfortunately, media outlets unwittingly misrepresent this context when they show maps of concentric rings illustrating the operational ranges of North Korea’s various different ballistic missiles, without explaining the strategic context in which those missiles are deployed.

For example, while Chicago and Los Angeles are theoretically in range of the North’s Unha-3 multi-stage intercontinental ballistic missile, so too are Beijing, Mumbai, Moscow and Darwin.  Obviously those cities have no strategic value as potential targets for North Korea, but non-experts could be forgiven for not grasping that from missile range maps alone.

  1. Failure to look beyond the Kim’s

Media coverage of North Korea that focusses on Kim Jong Un ironically echoes official propaganda from Pyongyang that equates the leader to the entire DPRK itself.  The reality of North Korea, however, is far more complex.

The gulag system and human rights abuses of the Kim regime are well documented.  However, not everyone in the DPRK is starving or in a detention camp.  Indeed the lifestyles of Pyongyang residents and those of the other larger cities is relatively high by North Korean standards, functioning as an incentive for citizens to follow the rules and do their jobs well. There are a diversity of life experiences across the country, lived by ordinary people who are trying to get on the best they can in the society in which they find themselves.

Those life experiences are being re-shaped by dynamic social change processes.  Rather than economic sanctions, it has been North Korea’s connection to the Chinese economy that has done more to alter the domestic politics of the DPRK.

The continuing marketisation of the North Korean economy has created noticeable changes in popular culture and consumption habits in the DPRK’s urban centres. These changes have been funnelled through North Korea’s special economic zones, the most successful of which is currently located at Rason in the tri-border region with China and Russia in the country’s north.  The supply chain networks of suppliers and clients undergirding market activities provide an avenue for social organisation outside of official social controls. The rise of a class of nouveau riche North Koreans is changing the dynamics of the nation’s economy and reshaping the relationship between the Kim government and the North Korean people.

When we lift our gaze beyond the nuclear issue, we can identify other avenues for influencing and interacting with North Korea that could help international actors manage the nuclear threat and reduce the risk of a devastating wider conflict.


North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches are indeed provocative.  However, we should interpret that threat from an informed perspective based on demonstrable strategic logic, rather than on caricatured misrepresentations of the the North Korean leadership.

As I’ve argued previously in The Conversation (here, here and here), the consequences of a nuclear-armed North Korea are manageable.  The consequences of attacking North Korea are not.  When media organisations publish stories that misread, misrepresent or misunderstand North Korea, they unnecessarily raise fear among publics and make it more difficult for democratic citizens to engage constructively with the foreign policy-making process.  When policy-makers hold these views, or where knowledgeable officials are absent from the policy-making apparatus, the risk of regional states stumbling into an entirely avoidable conflict increases.