Monday, October 23, 2017

What Motivates Kim Jong-un and Why it Matters

In April I traveled to Seoul to deliver a paper at a conference of economists and public policy experts. On this occasion I learned much about life and politics in Korea by touring the Korean War Museum, an art museum, a university, a hospital, historic palaces, commercial centers and the Demilitarized Zone. Most informative were discussions with local leaders, academics, doctors and a general who recently had commanded the US forces stationed in Korea.

This visit to Korea has caused me to take more than the usual interest in the current political problems surrounding North Korea’s development of a nuclear arsenal and missile delivery system. I therefore eagerly attended a public lecture on the topic delivered by Paul Evans, a specialist on Asian Pacific international relations at the University of British Columbia who has served on a number of committees that regularly advise governments on the politics of the region.

To my surprise Evans argued that Kim Jong-un’s development of a nuclear arsenal is the result of his belief that the United States was planning to invade his country and destroy his regime. This long-standing belief explains North Korea’s maintenance of one million soldiers on active duties that are backed by several million reservists and paramilitary units. These troops are equipped with thousands of tanks and artillery pieces capable of using chemical and biological agents soon missiles equipped with nuclear warheads.

Evans’ interpretation of the reasons for North Korea’s nuclear policy leads him to the conclusion that the country’s fear of invasion and its aggressive rhetoric can be ended by the withdrawal of US troops from South Korea and regional military bases.

However, many experts disagree with this recommendation on the grounds that Kim Jong-un’s policies are not motivated by national security concerns but the ideologically driven desire to create one communist Korea on the Peninsula. This goal has motivated North Korea’s policies since 1945 when the cold-war foes United States and Russia agreed on the creation of the two countries north and south of the 38th parallel.

This view of North Korea’s true motives is backed by strong evidence. The Korean War was started when in 1950 the North Korean army invaded the South Korea in a surprise attack and without any provocation or threat of an attack on its territory.  That war ended in 1953 with North Korea agreeing only to a cease fire not a peace treaty, signaling that it did not accept the permanent division between the two countries. The country’s recently created nuclear capacity is not needed to defend its territory from invasion but to support its grand scheme for a unified Korea.
This grand scheme includes North Korea’s use of its nuclear capability to blackmail the United States into withdrawing its troops from South Korea or face a nuclear missile attack on its territory. The experts believe that if this threat causes the United States to withdraw its troops and prevent it coming to the aid of the South Korean army in case of a military conflict, North Korea will invade South Korea, defeat its army and establish a communist government.

If this analysis is correct, the challenge is not to persuade the United States to withdraw from the region but to persuade Kim Jong-un that the United States will never be blackmailed into withdrawing its troops and abandoning its support for South Korea. If he accepts this proposition, he will end his provocative rhetoric about attacks on US territories and the United States in return will accept the fact the North Korea is a nuclear power, as it has in the case of other countries like China, India, Pakistan and Israel.

President Donald Trump’s policies are designed to signal America’s resolve to resist the nuclear blackmail by North Korea. It is an open question whether this will be enough to persuade Kim Jong-un to end his provocations with or without offers of financial assistance and the ending of existing sanctions. Past efforts made in this spirit have failed and the world can only hope that they will be successful in the future.

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