The DPRK’s Reagan Strategy

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) exchanges smiles with chief of general staff of the Korean People's Army Ri Yong-ho during a military parade to mark the birth anniversary of the North's late leader Kim Jong-Il in Pyongyang, in this photo taken by Kyodo, February 16, 2012. Photo: REUTERS/Kyodo

The [North] Korean Committee for Space Technology announced on 16 March that the DPRK would launch the “earth-observation satellite Kwangmyŏngsŏng-3 with the carrier rocket Ŭnha-3.”  The spokesman said the satellite would be placed into a polar orbit from the Sŏhae Satellite Launching Station in Ch’ŏlsan County, North P’yŏng’an Province between 12 and 16 April.

The announcement almost certainly has killed the so-called U.S.-DPRK Leap day agreement whereby Pyongyang pledged to implement “a moratorium on nuclear tests, long-range missile launches, and uranium enrichment activity at Yŏngbyŏn and allow the IAEA to monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment while productive dialogues continue.” In return, Washington “reaffirmed that it no longer has hostile intent toward the DPRK” and agreed to provide 240,000 tons of “nutritional assistance.” The outline of the deal had been struck in December 2011, but the announcement was delayed because of Kim Jong-il’s death.

Some analysts have questioned the reasons for the satellite launch, which they perceive to be a miscalculation or a sign of a split within the leadership, because this will make it virtually impossible for the U.S. to deliver the food assistance. An alternative explanation is that the DPRK announcement was deliberate and the leadership knew exactly what it was doing.

Most people tend to forget whom DPRK diplomats are working for, how and where they were educated, and what the DPRK national strategy is. Senior diplomats such as Kang Sŏk-chu, Pak Ŭi-ch’un, Kim Kye-gwan and their subordinates conducting talks with American diplomats do not free-lance in their negotiations. The importance of the bilateral relationship to Pyongyang means it is impossible that the senior leadership—Kim Jong-un and his close advisors—did not sign off on the Leap Day agreement.

Senior DPRK diplomats have risen to their positions because they are well-versed in the DPRK doctrine of sŏn’gun [先軍; military first], and they are committed to the national strategy of building a kangsŏngdaeguk [强盛大國; strong and prosperous country]. Yes, Pyongyang would like to have “normal relations” with Washington. And although the Korean Workers Party (KWP), the Foreign Ministry, and the Korean People’s Army (KPA) probably have quite different views on what types of benefits might be accrued from normal bilateral relations, there is strong consensus on how to achieve that objective.

It’s building a kangsŏngdaeguk in the sŏn’gun era, stupid.

I call it their “Reagan strategy.”  The Great Glorious and Eternal 40th POTUS Ronald Wilson Reagan said, “Peace through strength,” and “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” And we all know what happened after the Reagan administration sunk all those billions into the U.S. defense budgets…

DPRK officials have been inculcated with a literature depicting the futility of diplomacy and the need for strong military capabilities. For example, Our Party’s Sŏn’gun Ideology [우리 당의 선군사상], published by the [North] Korea Social Science Publishing House [사회과학출판사; 2010], cites the naiveté of those who tried diplomatic methods to achieve Korean independence at the time of the March 1919 uprising against the Japanese. They say Korea only achieved independence because of the “military first” orientation and strategy of Kim Il-sung (no mention of the U.S. defeat of Japan in August 1945, of course).

Even economic recovery and development is impossible without “military first.” Authors Rim I-ch’ŏl and Ch’oi Gŭm-ryong in Sŏn’gun Korea Today [선군조선의 오늘], published by the Pyongyang Publishing House [평양출판사; 2007] describe how “military first” provides the discipline and mentality to resolve the country’s energy problems and food insecurity.

From the DPRK perspective, nothing is achievable without military strength. In many ways, “military first” is realism (from an international relations perspective), but with a modified Leninist world view.  Sŏn’gun adopted Lenin’s theory of capitalist imperialism, but the “military first” critique of global capitalism is even more harsh. According to sŏn’gun ideology, the capitalist class in the U.S. not only seeks greater profits or “surplus value” abroad, but the “enslavement” of people who do not have the means to resist. Abandoning sŏn’gun means you will risk enslavement at the hands of the Americans.

It would be naïve to expect DPRK diplomats to believe that better relations with the U.S. will come about through neo-liberal contractual exchanges, confidence-building measures and verifiable arms control. Instead, the DPRK government believes that once it is a kangsŏngdaeguk, Washington and the world will respect the DPRK, and only then will the environment be conducive for improved relations with the United States.


Author: Daniel Pinkston

Daniel Pinkston is the Deputy Project Director, North East Asia Program. His work focuses on inter-Korean relations, domestic politics, regional security, nonproliferation and the reform process in North Korea.