Policies in Pyongyang put security before progress
Over two weeks have passed since North Korea conducted its third nuclear test, and the UN Security Council - although slow to act - seems likely to adopt a new resolution. But while nuclear weapons pose a serious threat to the global order, scholars and policymakers around the world disagree on the best way to contain and eliminate that threat.
Some blame the current crisis on the Obama administration for its policy of "strategic patience". Others blame China for failing to constrain North Korea. Many South Korean conservatives blame former liberal governments for providing economic assistance that enabled North Korea to develop nuclear weapons. On the other hand, leftists blame the hard-line policies of former President Lee Myung-bak for making Pyongyang feel insecure.
Since the nuclear test on February 12 there have been many critiques and policy recommendations. Some suggests a return to the six-party talks (among North Korea, South Korea, China, the US, Russia and Japan), while others suggest the Obama administration should quickly re-engage Pyongyang.
In South Korea, meanwhile, some have suggested that new president Park Geun-hye should send an envoy either publicly or secretly to calm down tensions and dissuade Pyongyang from conducting further nuclear tests or missile launches. And still others have suggested that the international community must reconfigure a better package of incentives and disincentives so that North Korea will finally make the strategic choice to denuclearise.
The problem with this blame game and policy advice is that no one seems to consider how the leadership in Pyongyang makes its decisions. Instead, pundits and policymakers rely upon mirror imaging based upon their rational, liberal, legalistic, material and institutional perspective that forms the cornerstone of modern diplomacy and international relations in the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, the North Korean leadership doesn't think this way. Although the first cracks in the information dyke are beginning to appear ever so slightly, the state maintains near complete control of information. The senior elite grew up in this system and they have been socialised, rewarded and punished according to the state ideology of songun or "military first" that has been refined over the last 20 years.
As it applies to foreign affairs, songun is an amalgamation of Marxism-Leninism, xenophobic nationalism and extreme realism that is obsessed with military power. According to songun, a modern, secure and capable state must possess the most advanced military technologies to ensure national security. Cooperative and collective security within institutional frameworks are viewed as tricks that undermine national security.
North Koreans view the core capitalist country in the international system - the United States - as imperialist by definition. According to songun, the only way Koreans can avoid "enslavement by the Americans" is to brandish a nuclear arsenal and deter the invasion that could come at any time.
The debate over the utility of nuclear weapons for national security purposes is old and unresolved. But there are two important points in the North Korean case. Songun ideology stipulates that North Korea must match the military capabilities of the "main imperialist state in the international system". No negative security assurance given by the United States or any other country could ever be credible. To accept security assurances as credible would require a renunciation of songun.
The second main point regarding songun is that military power is viewed as enhancing the capacity of the state to pursue other goals, however the leadership defines them.
Songun ideology is linked to the objective of becoming a "strong and prosperous state". According to North Korean literature and media, such a state is strong in "ideology, politics, the military and economics". North Korea considers itself strong in the first three dimensions, and now the state is seeking economic development.
These four dimensions are considered linked and interlocking. Awesome military power in the form of nuclear weapons is considered a necessary condition for the state to achieve economic prosperity. Pyongyang does not view its nuclear and missile programmes in terms of opportunity costs, but as prerequisites for economic development.
So when North Korean media and diplomats complain that UN Security Council Resolution 2087 condemning their December 2012 space launch is a "scheme to strangle their economic development", they are not being disingenuous. They truly believe it.
Now the UN Security Council is debating how to finesse the incentives to persuade Pyongyang to back down, but the North Korean leadership will be guided by songun in its response. The only way North Korea will ever denuclearise is if the leadership abandons its songun policy. And no sanctions will ever force this change.
The only way Pyongyang will abandon songun is if it is falsified by the state's failure to achieve the fourth goal, economic development, in the strategy to become a "strong and prosperous country".
I believe nuclear armament and economic prosperity are incompatible goals, but Pyongyang has placed the opposite bet. If the international community maintains robust deterrence and sanctions to foil the songun strategy, it may be proven the correct approach.
But if Pyongyang is correct, the leadership could be emboldened by songun and pursue other goals that ignore the interests of the international community. We would then be closer to the deliberate, unauthorised or accidental use of a nuclear bomb.
Daniel Pinkston is the north-east Asia deputy project director with the International Crisis Group in Seoul
Updated: March 4, 2013 04:00 AM