Kim Jong-un’s rule is fraught with desperate and eccentric attempts to consolidate, legitimize, and ensure his rise to power. Initially, he appeared nervous and relied heavily upon his uncle to give advice, then later executed him for supposedly fomenting a coup and even assassinated his half-brother earlier this year. Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un has launched missiles at an increasing rate and tested more nuclear weapons than his predecessors. While Kim Jong-un continues to coerce the international community through the persistent threat of nuclear weapons, his greatest challenge is retaining power from threats inside his own border. Public executions, information isolation, and building an image of strength helped Kim Jong-un successfully transfer power but his struggle to maintain that image will persevere throughout his reign. Although North Korea possesses rudimentary nuclear capabilities, regime change is the greatest threat to regional security; therefore, the United States should focus its efforts on diplomatic and military coordination between China, South Korea, and Russia in the event of a failed state.
While some of Kim Jong-un’s actions may appear erratic and dangerous to the international community, his intended audience is domestic. Mimicking his grandfather’s mannerisms and appearance, Kim Jong-un strives to link the historically beloved dynastic ruler, Kim Il-sung, to himself. His imitation combined with the songbun social system created by Kim Il-sung classifying the population into “core,” “wavering,” and “hostile” classes illuminates perpetual vulnerabilities and insecurities, explaining the continual need to publicly assert power within North Korean borders. Public executions, assassinations of prominent government officials, the embodiment of Kim Il-sung, and threat of nuclear weapons gained him a reputation on a global scale and allowed him to consolidate power at home. Kim Jong-un’s actions are a rational attempt to obtain, legitimize, and maintain power within his borders.
A coup attempt or selection of a new successor would severely destabilize the entire region - more so than any weapon the DPRK currently possesses. Following his ascension, he directed significant investments in military equipment and nuclear capabilities and organized intense military training and more frequent missile and nuclear weapons tests. This enabled Kim Jong-un to portray himself as a strong, successful leader. Furthermore, building nuclear weapons offers a decisive complement to DPRK diplomatic policies at home and abroad, as well as providing a safeguard against foreign invasion. In fact, depending on perspective, weapons of mass destruction can actually be seen as enhancing regional stability in the Korean peninsula by boosting the confidence of the DPRK leadership and effectively deterring a foreign incursion into North Korea. Undoubtedly, the DPRK observed our actions in Libya and Iraq, and used these case-studies to strengthen their resolve to maintain its nuclear weapons program. It is apparent North Korea has the means to utilize weapons of mass destruction, and equally apparent that they will never willingly surrender these weapons. Hence, any attempt to denuclearize his country will be completely dismissed by Kim Jong-un.
On paper, North Korea’s strategic endstate is the reunification of the Korean peninsula; however, Kim Jong-un’s primary focus is on the task of surviving. This is why we still continue to see information isolation, public executions, and other extreme measures despite his successful transfer of power years ago. It would be self-defeating for Kim Jong-un to extend his borders by pressuring the international community or initiating war. Launching an unprovoked attack would prompt a swift and decisive response from numerous global actors, most notably China. In fact, China stated, if either side initiates a strike against the DPRK or the United States they would intervene. If Kim Jong-un were able to coercively annex South Korea, the realization of prosperity in the South and distribution of that information across the peninsula would cause many to question why they never experienced such wealth in the North. Therefore, Kim Jong-un’s final and most feasible option for extending his borders lay in provoking an attack against himself, winning the support of China, and subsequently counterattacking across the peninsula. This option presents Kim Jong-un with several significant hurdles including successfully inciting the United States or the Republic of Korea to attack, withstanding that attack, fighting back across the peninsula, and executing it all in a manner which maintains China’s support.
China’s interest in punishing North Korea is minimal yet their desire to keep a North Korean buffer between the democratic South and itself is tremendous. Not only does the DPRK provide a buffer zone but North Korea also provides a revenue stream. Trade has increased over 37% across their borders just within the past year and has risen from $490 million in 2000 to nearly $5.5 billion in 2015. Nevertheless, the cost of North Korean refugees fleeing across the Chinese border would be devastating. While Kim Jong-un and his nuclear weapons may create problems for Beijing, dealing with him is preferable to the collapse of the regime. Therefore, it is in Chinese interest to maintain peace on the peninsula, whether by preventing an incursion by the DPRK or foreign-sponsored regime change.
Similarly, Russia is continuing to grow closer to North Korea by building railroads, investing in energy and infrastructure and creating multiple economic and diplomatic ties. Previously, Russia was included in negotiations over North Korea because of their history, but increasingly they seek to have greater influence in their future. Furthermore, Moscow’s investments allow them to become a power broker in the Far East. Moscow and Beijing hold significant leverage over North Korean actions and particularly Kim Jong-un’s future. Rather than simply believing their connections to be anti-American sentiment, the United States should work closely with Beijing and Moscow to balance power against Kim Jong-un.
American and South Korean options are fairly limited considering the vested interests of China and Russia and the volatility of Kim Jong-un. While we can continue to cry for a halt to their nuclear weapons program, it is simply not in North Korea’s interest to stop developing weapons of mass destruction. Instead of continuing to push for an unrealistic endstate under the current regime, the United States should focus its attention on working closely with China and Russia to maintain the status quo on the peninsula. While Beijing and Moscow may not be excited about preparing for the collapse of the DPRK, the United States needs to press forward preparations for when the regime falls to ensure the security and neutralization of all weapons of mass destruction and their facilities. A unified peninsula under South Korean control has historically been unacceptable to both China and Russia and is not worth the blood and treasure of war. Alternatively, upon regime collapse, opening up North Korean borders to trade would help assuage the economic and social cost to China, Russia, and South Korea. In the meantime, it is not in the interest of the United States to forcibly remove Kim Jong-un from power, but rather to outlast and outmaneuver him diplomatically using China and Russia as leverage. Kim Jong-un’s recent threats should not come as a surprise; specific threats coming from Pyongyang are as old as the regime itself. While some argue for attacking before Kim Jong-un has the capability to launch ICBMs, a less costly option for the United States is to maintain a firm stance and allow China and Russia to dial back Kim Jong-un. Fighting a war against China and Russia will prove more costly than any attack by North Korea, especially if our technology continues to outpace the DPRK’s weapons development.
American interests in North Korea are more aligned with Chinese interests than most realize. So long as peace is maintained on the peninsula, there is no need to push for regime change right now. Kim Jong-un’s provocations and weapons development still need to be taken seriously and met with firm resolution, but with the understanding that his best options for survival are to maintain the status quo or provoke an attack against himself. Instead of believing cooperation between Pyongyang, Moscow, and Beijing as anti-American sentiment, the United States should view their investments as leverage to balance Kim Jong-un’s aggressiveness. Nevertheless, this leverage should not be used to attempt to halt or reverse the DPRK’s weapons program because not only will it be ignored by North Korea but, if prodded too hard, could ignite a war rather than stabilize the region. Rather, Americans should use the fall of the Soviet Union as a blueprint for policy and action in North Korea both during and after the fall of Kim Jong-un, whenever that will be. Despite the constant threats and rhetoric, there is really no cause for alarm no matter how many times Kim Jong-un launches missiles or tests nuclear weapons as China and Russia will continue to corral him in to prevent a costly war. Kim Jong-un is on the clock, but the United States has all the time in the world.