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Pyongyang Prospect

Pyongyang Prospect

Glyn Ford is a former member of the European Parliament and author of Talking to North Korea (2018) and Picturing the DPRK (2024)

North Korea’s nuclear programme is the symptom of weakness, not strength. Pundits confuse David with Goliath. The reality is that Pyongyang is comprehensively out-spent, out-gunned and out-resourced by its southern alter ego. Seoul’s military budget dwarfs that of Pyongyang by a factor of eleven. Bundle together Washington, Tokyo and Seoul and it’s a factor of two hundred. The Republic of Korea’s 10.33% increase in its 2021 military budget matched the North’s total annual military spend.

While there is a perception premium for Pyongyang in being a nuclear weapon state, the hard reality is, for them, there was little alternative, even if it serendipitously killed two birds with one stone. The regime faces two threats, external and internal. The external military threat of regime change is countered by nuclear deterrence. The internal threat is less a ‘magnolia revolution’, more a court quarrel. Here Kim Jong Un needs to keep the people who matter happy – the approximately two million people living within the curtilage of Pyongyang – providing bread and circuses! The circuses are there, but the bread requires continued economic growth. 

The two key restraints on growth are energy and manpower. The nuclear programme provides an answer to both. Civil nuclear power is in prospect. North Korea has a self-sufficient nuclear fuel cycle with Light Water Reactors. The reason why, in Hanoi, Kim Jong Un was determined to retain a uranium enrichment plant was to emulate Iran. It was also why the North was so happy with the Singapore Declaration calling for ‘denuclearisation of the Peninsula’, and so disgruntled when Biden shuffled the language substituting North Korea for Peninsula. While their nuclear deterrent allows them to decant men out of the military. A standing army of close to 1.4 million could free more than 100,000 men just by cutting conscription by a year. The North has an unfashionable notion of drivers of growth. Schooled on massive factories and mines, the answer again is yet more of the same. It just might work, drawing on its enormous pool of cheap skilled labour.

Last year’s ‘State of the Union’ saw Kim make public the long-held elite belief that early re-unification can only mean assimilation because of the economic damage and disadvantage consequent on America’s ‘hostile policy’. If only the US got off our backs, Pyongyang – like other Asian tigers – could grow its economy by 10-15% year on year. In a generation or two re-unification could have been on the table as North and South were back in the same economic league for the first time since the early seventies. Now peaceful unification is never with Kim disowning the people of the South. Why? Follow the money! The promise of mass economic aid from Seoul died in the pit of Southern conservatism, while any future war has a nuclear inevitability. These blunt weapons at the North’s command no longer allow even a rough sifting of friend from foe in the South.

Kim Il Sung made a strategic choice after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its Empire as the long ability to play-off Beijing and Moscow ended. The US tide was flowing and it was now time to normalise relations with Washington. A strategic option consistently followed by son and grandson. It came closest to fulfilment in February 2019. In Hanoi, despite all, Kim’s hopes were dashed. Trump’s unprecedented engagement made its failure final. The last best opportunity blew up in Kim’s face. For the North the subversion and sabotage of Trump’s unparalleled policy of engagement by his subalterns and subordinates established for Kim there was no path to peaceful coexistence. This, in conjunction with the US ’defeat’ in Afghanistan, the dithering over Ukraine and the inability to command Israel over Gaza, led him to favour confrontation over conciliation. With the ebbing of American hegemony he has chosen to put the country on a war-footing as he maintains his links with Beijing and rebuilds them with Moscow after entertaining Putin in Pyongyang. He is betting that the bloc politics, paused with the death of the Soviet Union, is back as Washington squares up to Beijing and Europe and Russia offer to hold their coats.

Robert Carlin and Siegfried Hecker (38 North, 11 January 2024) suggested that Kim Jong Un is preparing for war. I’m more sanguine. I don’t think Kim is preordaining the military option, but he will fight if he thinks it necessary. He will be emboldened by Putin‘s visit. He continues to polish, produce and deploy his nuclear arsenal plus his IRBMs and ICBMs. The reference in December’s speech to a new ’super powerful’ weapon can only allude to his, as yet, uncompleted hydrogen bomb project. The combination of Yoon’s escalatory threats and Kim’s determination to assert himself is an explosive mixture, and there are multiple opportunities for sparks along the DMZ. 

Nevertheless the sector of greatest concern must be around the Northern Limit Line, an arbitrary and generous unilateral determination by Seoul delimiting the maritime border between South and North, that does not reflect any likely arbitration under the Law of the Sea Convention. When Kim – as promised – makes his own demarcation there will thousands of square kilometres of sea claimed both by North and South. Then the prospect of war looms large, with accidental war more likely than surprise attack, for the reality is Pyongyang’s escalatory ladder has only two rungs.

In the light of Kim’s New Year’s Address there are already those close to the US Administration talking pre-emptive/ preventive attack. Pyongyang’s paranoia is not without substance, and it is already planning to counter. The prophecy is in danger of becoming self-fulfilling as the two sides ride, slide and race each other to war. Washington wins any fight, but it could be the ultimate pyrrhic victory to end overlooking and overseeing a radioactive wasteland.

The Peninsula is for the moment more dangerous than Ukraine or Gaza. The victims of war will be millions in the North and their mirror images in the South. As Washington is the far stronger of the two it needs to make the first moves. No-one expects anything that costs credibility. Kim knows the sanctions will stay even after they no longer serve any purpose. There are steps than can be taken. First, they must publicly call back and restrain Yoon’s military adventurism. Second, Washington should reluctantly acknowledge Pyongyang as a de facto nuclear weapons state like India, Pakistan and Israel. Third, engage with Beijing to encourage restraint by Pyongyang against further adventures in nuclear weapons and missile technology – hydrogen bomb and miniaturisation, ICBM re-entry and guidance technologies. Fourth, encourage those that Pyongyang is willing to talk to, like the EU, to engage.

The opinions expressed are those of the contributor, not of the RSAA.

Read more from Glyn Ford

Talking to North Korea: Ending the Nuclear Standoff
Despite recents attempts at `negotiation’, the attitudes of both Kim Jong-un’s regime and the West seem unchanged. North Korea is still shrouded in mystery, and there are no clear plans for the future… Can we trust either side to bring about peace? And if so, how? This provocative insider’s account blasts apart the myths which paint North Korea as a rogue state run by a mad leader.

Picturing the DPRK
Behind the facade are the people of the DPRK as depicted in these photographs taken by Glyn Ford during some 50 visits over recent decades. Outside the regime there are 26 million men, women and children like us. Picturing the DPRK puts these people and their places centre stage. They, and the rest of the people on the Peninsula, will be the hapless victims of any attempt to force regime change or any inadvertent stumbling into war.

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