As expected, the DPRK has rejected UN Security Council Resolution 2087 adopted 22 January (EST) in response to the launch of the Ŭnha-3 space launch vehicle (SLV) on 12 December 2012. The DPRK Foreign Ministry statement dismissed the resolution as illegitimate less than two hours after it was adopted by the Security Council. The DPRK National Defense Commission (NDC) issued its own statement the following day, threatening to launch more satellite boosters and missiles, and to conduct nuclear tests in order to deal with the United States. Not to be outdone, the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea issued its own statement against the ROK one day after the NDC, promising to wage war against the South if it participates in the sanctions regime against Pyongyang.
The DPRK’s displeasure with Resolution 2087 may have been expected, but Pyongyang’s belligerent tone caught many by surprise, as the expectation had been that North Korea would moderate its behaviour following the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011. For a year we have seen reports of Kim Jŏng-ŭn’s leadership style and how it contrasted with his father’s. Kim Jong-il was a relative recluse whose spoken words were never broadcast on radio or television. Kim only spoke once before the public when he uttered one sentence at the beginning of a military parade in the early 1990s.
In contrast, Kim Jŏng-ŭn projects the charismatic image of a natural politician that often is compared to that of his grandfather. He appears to be a confident, modern man who is more energetic in managing state affairs than his father who was in declining health the last few years of his life. The contrasting styles led some people to believe that opening and reform were imminent.
Despite cosmetic changes and the construction of a new leadership coalition, the North Korean system is a highly centralised dictatorship. The institutional structures and state ideology remain fundamentally unchanged. In terms of foreign policy, national security policy, and inter-Korean policy, Pyongyang has not changed at all. The Korean Workers Party, the state, the Korean People’s Army, and the leader, Kim Jŏng-ŭn, remain committed to the strategy, or ideology, of son’gun, or “military first.” DPRK institutions and media repeatedly affirm that they must continue fighting the revolution until final victory, namely national unification under Marshal Kim Jŏng-ŭn.
Son’gun makes the international system appear menacing and intent on domination. According to son’gun, the American imperialist “bastards” seek to enslave Koreans and anyone else without the means to resist. The only way to avoid this catastrophe is to acquire the military capabilities to deter the wicked United States along with any of their flunkeys that might join a U.S.-led coalition. In sum, it is a mixture of Leninist imperialism and realist power balancing, except it is more militant than the sum of these two parts.
In contrast, the rest of the world takes a legalistic, neo-liberal approach to international affairs, assuming that states are rational actors who seek to maximize their gains as they weigh the costs and benefits of their actions. This logic, which forms the foundation of economic sanctions, tells us that states will reverse course if increasing costs make a given action unsustainable. This thinking has led many to believe that China holds the key to taming North Korea’s missile and nuclear ambitions given Pyongyang’s economic dependence upon Beijing. Once the Chinese really get angry and cut them off economically,Pyongyang will cease its provocative behaviour, or so they say.
The problem is North Korean decision-makers do not follow this logic. The North Korean leadership formulates its decisions according to son’gun. They know the international community will impose costs for developing long-range missiles and nuclear weapons. But the North Korean leadership does not consider the opportunity costs of their actions, or the benefits they could obtain through international cooperation.
From Pyongyang’s perspective, Resolution 2087 validates the truth and importance ofson’gun. The DPRK sees international law, international institutions, collective security, arms control and any other cooperative arrangement as undesirable and as schemes to undermine their national security. A son’gun leader is one who sees power as the only instrument in politics—at both the domestic and international levels. In the son’gun mindset, power is the real currency of the international system. Power—not international cooperation—enables a state to achieve its goals. Power is not only critical to son’gun politics, power is the only thing in son’gun politics. Without superior capabilities, a son’gun leader is at a loss. He cannot build coalitions or institutions to create mutual benefits for a pluralistic community. Every interaction is a zero-sum game driven by top-down power asymmetries. So he must seek power to survive at a minimum and then pursue other goals when sufficient power resources are at hand.
Some analysts have described Resolution 2087 as restrained and calibrated. No new sanctions instruments were included, but it added entities and individuals to the sanctions list, including the Korean Committee for Space Technology, and two senior officials implicated in the Ŭnha-3 launches in April and December last year. While critics view this as weak and insufficient, Pyongyang sees it in essence as a show trial that unjustly accused, tried and convicted their national heroes as international criminals. In this case, son’gunmandates a strong response, so additional missile tests and a nuclear test are almost certain, just as the NDC has promised.
So what to do about this? The good news is that the son’gun leadership is so obsessed with power that they understand the power balance, particularly when it is not in their favour. Of course, international diplomacy should never cease. The diplomatic corps should continue their efforts to find compromises and ways to slow down, freeze or reverse North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. However, this is not a substitute for a robust deterrent posture. South Korea and its treaty ally the United States, along with coalition partners in the United Nations Command, should be prepared for any contingency—however unpleasant—on the Korean peninsula.