North Korean Grand Strategy

The North Korean grand strategy is clear and straightforward. And it might actually work.

International media portrays North Korea as a country run by a lunatic. A lunatic named Kim Jung Un. However, by taking a close look at North Korean sources along with international sources, we see a country systematically moving towards clearly stated goals.

  • First, the North Korean regime wants economic prosperity while at the same time building economic independence.
  • Second, the North Korean regime wants to safeguard its borders. These first two goals are what the North Koreans call “The Byungjin Line”. Finally, Kim Jung Un wants to stay in power and avoid the fate of toppled dictators like Saddam or Gaddafi.

Kim Jung-Un laid out the Byungjin Line to Party Central Committee General in 2013: “The Party’s new line will strengthen our nuclear arsenal by relying on our independent atomic energy industry while also providing us with a rational path toward solving our electrical power issues.”

For the North Koreans, nuclear power solves two of their gravest problems: military security and economic independence. 

More Nukes Means Fewer Troops

Since 1998, the military defense has been the top priority of the North Koreans. The North Koreans call this plan “Songun Politics“. A nuclear arsenal could allow the North Koreans to maintain an effective defense while cutting spending. North Korea spends around $30 billion to $40 billion on its army— one-fourth or fifth of the entire GDP. The nuclear program is costing them only— $1 billion to $3 billion dollars. A functioning nuclear arsenal would allow for a decrease in defense spending— fewer troops and conventional weapons would be needed to stave off an invasion.

The North Korean grand strategy: a nuclear-powered economy

The economic case for Nukes is less straightforward, but once we understand the North Korean goals, the case becomes clear. The North Korean government is obsessed with becoming economically self-sufficient. Who can blame them? The international community constantly tries to influence them through sanctions and embargoes. For the North Koreans, economic self-sufficiency gives them autonomy. The name they have given to this doctrine is “Juche”. According to the official North Korean Government Website, Juche is,  “..the realization of independence in politics, self-sufficiency in the economy and self-reliance in national defense…”.

While North Korea has abundant coal reserves, decades of underinvestment in machinery has left it unable to supply itself with energy.  Rather than upgrade all of its coal plants, the North Koreans, with their lax safety standards and cheap skilled labor, may be able to produce the energy they need more cheaply through nuclear power.

For the North Koreans, nuclear power and weaponry is a logical investment.

The North Korean economy is growing rapidly due to limited market reforms. According to Hyundai Research Institute, the North Korean economy grew by 7 percent in 2015. Wages are rising along with a new capitalist class. Kim Jung Un is introducing policies that echo those introduced by China in the 1980’s fuelling a construction boom.

Compare this strategy with that of his father. Kim Jung Un’s father, Kim Jung Il, stayed in power by repressing the capitalist class. In 2009, Kim Jung Il purposely wiped out savings to bring anybody who had made money back to the same level as everyone else.  

Kim Jung Un is choosing not to take the route that his father did and therefore must deal with a rising capitalist class. If not kept happy, they could be a threat to his regime. To keep them happy, he needs to keep the lights on and the smartphones charged.

No doubt, Kim Jung Un wants to avoid the fate of the Soviet Union (complete collapse) and instead is planning replicate the shifts to capitalism (while maintaining a repressive state) enacted by Vietnam and China. Nuclear power allows him to power his growing economy. Nuclear weapons could ultimately allow him to defend his regime more cheaply.

While the outside world characterizes it as irrational, the North Korean grand strategy is straightforward- and might actually work.

Related: North Korea Will Be The Defining Issue Of Trump’s Presidency

Antone holds an MSc from the London School of Economics. He has a BSc in International Relations and has worked in India, China, Mexico, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

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