North Korea has beaten its South Korean rival in the race to place a satellite into earth orbit, becoming the 10th nation to do so. Despite this impressive scientific and engineering achievement, the launch violates UN Security Council resolutions that prohibit all North Korean launches using ballistic technologies. Pyongyang argues that as a signatory to the Outer Space Treaty it has the sovereign right to launch satellites because Article 1 stipulates that “outer space…shall be free for exploration and use by all states without discrimination of any kind…” However, Pyongyang conveniently ignores the section of Article 1 that requires states to explore space “in accordance with international law.” UN Security Council resolutions are considered international law, and the Outer Space Treaty does not authorize signatories to disregard or violate resolutions as they exercise their right to explore outer space.
North Korea’s Ŭnha-3 space launch vehicle uses ballistic missile technology that inherently is dual use; it has both peaceful and military applications that are difficult or impossible to separate. All states, including North Korea, have legitimate national interests in the peaceful use of satellites, but Pyongyang’s satellite launch was achieved in a very unorthodox manner. Countries generally pursue space access through cooperative agreements to obtain data and access to satellites before considering the development of a space launch vehicle, which is very difficult and expensive. For example, South Korea began building satellites in the early 1990s and several have been launched transparently with other nations’ rockets for commercial and scientific purposes. However, Pyongyang focused on rocket development first and then satellites, almost as an afterthought.
North Korea’s past belligerence and non-compliance with its international commitments, including the withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and two nuclear tests, has led the UN Security Council to determine that all North Korean launches using ballistic missile technology pose a threat to international peace and security. Pyongyang has made clear it disagrees with this view and that it has the sovereign right to launch satellites, so it continues to defy the Security Council.
While Pyongyang celebrates, the international community has expressed outrage and promised there will be consequences. North Korea’s neighbors, including China, are not happy with the satellite launch, and they likely will take unilateral and multilateral actions to punish Pyongyang for another transgression. The measures will be designed to raise the costs for North Korea to continue on this course with the expectation that if these costs are sufficiently high and that if a mutually acceptable deal could be arranged, North Korea could be persuaded to abandon its nuclear and missile programs given their tremendous opportunity costs.
This approach is based upon a legalistic, contractual, neo-liberal institutional paradigm that assumes rationality and utilitarian calculations whereby states respond to material incentives. The challenge lies in crafting the right package of positive incentives such as aid and security assurances along with negative incentives such as economic sanctions to influence state behavior. Diplomats are tasked with designing a package of mutually acceptable incentives, and then leaders must sell the agreement to their domestic constituencies and somehow signal a credible commitment to the other country’s leadership. Of course, these are very basic concepts for those who have studied international relations or practiced diplomacy around the world.
This approach has been tried with North Korea for at least two decades, but with little success. And now North Korea is one step closer to developing a nuclear ICBM capability, albeit they have many more steps to go. The satellite launch now forces the international community to revisit North Korean transgressions and many will agonize over lost opportunities to denuclearize North Korea and the challenges ahead. The Chinese blame Americans and the Americans blame Chinese. Opposition and ruling parties in South Korea and the U.S. blame each other for policy failures and “getting North Korea wrong.” Diplomats are warning that North Korea will become “more isolated” unless it changes its behavior, which is diplomatic jargon for “we are prepared to impose costs on Pyongyang through sanctions.”
The problem with this approach is that Pyongyang is playing a different game and the leadership is motivated by different values. The North Korean leadership views the world through the lens of sŏn’gun, or “military first.” Almost all foreigners fail to understand the implications of sŏn’gun for North Korean foreign policy, and consequently, what policies are needed in response. They tend to think it means the military has gained prominence in policy making and therefore North Korean foreign policy is “hard line.” While generally correct, this perspective adheres to the Western contractual and institutional approach mentioned above, and it misses the fundamental guiding principles of sŏn’gun, which ultimately drives North Korean decision-making.
Western diplomats and negotiators seek to assess North Korean intentions and preferences through various means, but how many of them have read a single Korean book or article on sŏn’gun ideology and its view of foreign relations? We must remember that the North Korean leadership did not attend foreign universities to learn the virtues of confidence building measures and neo-liberal institutionalism. They attended schools such as Kim Il Sung University, Kim Chaek University, and the Kim Il Sung Military Academy—not UC San Diego, Tufts, Georgetown, Stanford, and Oxford.
The world according to sŏn’gun ideology is an extremely menacing one. Sŏn’gun borrows extensively from Lenin’s perspective on “capitalist imperialism” except that sŏn’gun is more extreme. It does retain Marx’s labor theory of value and the concept of capitalist exploitation of workers and capitalist accumulation of surplus value. However, it abandons Marxist-Leninist class-based universalism and instead upholds the nation-state as the unit of analysis in international relations. Sŏn’gun is extremely nationalistic and extols Korean exceptionalism. The capitalist core state—presently the United States, and previously Japan during the colonial period—is exploitative by definition. But this perspective is even more radical than Lenin’s. The core capitalist country doesn’t just seek greater returns to capital abroad, but according to sŏn’gun, the United States is hell bent on enslaving the Korean people.
The North Korean sŏn’gun literature repeatedly warns of enslavement if the nation fails to acquire and maintain sufficient military power to resist enslaving imperialism. This explains North Korea’s obsession with the need for the United States to “abandon its hostile policy towards the DPRK.” However, there is no negative security assurance by the United States that could ever be credible. If one could be credible, it would falsify sŏn’gun. For a North Korean to suggest that a package of U.S. incentives could be acceptable and in North Korea’s national interest would mean he or she is renouncing sŏn’gun. For those educated and indoctrinated in North Korea such thoughts are inconceivable, and if they were expressed it would almost certainly lead to extreme retribution for that person and his or her family.
Foreign relations according to sŏn’gun are based upon power. This aspect of sŏn’gun ideology clearly resonates with the realist school in international relations. The sŏn’gun literature ridicules international law, international institutions, mutual restraint, confidence building, arms control, and collective security as tricks to disarm and enslave North Korea. If you’re skeptical, just look to Iraq, Libya, and Syria as prime examples that validate sŏn’gun in the minds of the North Korean leadership.
In sum, Pyongyang must abandon its sŏn’gun ideology and its hostile world view before any negotiated diplomatic settlement can be struck to end North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. No amount of sanctions or extent of “isolation” can raise the costs sufficiently to persuade North Korea’s sŏn’gun leadership to make a “strategic decision” to denuclearize and embark on a path of greater prosperity for the North Korean people. Until Pyongyang abandons its sŏn’gun foreign policy, the international community has little choice but to stress deterrence, containment, nonproliferation, export controls, and counter-proliferation. Fortunately, the North Korean leadership clearly understands power and they can be deterred. Diplomacy should not be abandoned. It must continue to assess North Korea’s intentions and goals, and efforts be made to slow down or freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs whenever possible. However, the international community should not harbor any illusions about the prospects for negotiations with sŏn’gun Korea.