- Why Nothing Can Really Be Done about North Korea’s Nuclear Program
If one were asked to describe the worldview of the North Korean political elites, it could be done in a single word: they are “hyperrealists.” Their idea of how international relations are structured agrees extremely well with the prescriptions of the realist school (of whose existence most of them seem blissfully unaware), and in many cases they take this school’s ideas to its logical extremes. This has been the case for well over half a century. This hyperrealism is how a small group of North Korean hereditary elites have managed to stay in power against seemingly impossible odds since the late 1950s. In that time, North Korea has survived the Sino-Soviet quarrel of the 1960–80s, long-term economic decline, the meteoric rise of South Korea (its major geopolitical rival), the collapse of the Soviet Union (its major aid provider), and famine and the near-complete disintegration of its economy in the 1990s.
Any one of these events would probably be enough to wipe out the majority of the world’s regimes. But the Kim family regime is alive and kicking. How did it manage this? How is it still surviving? The regime largely persists because the Kim family is the best bunch of Machiavellians currently in operation. The major goal of the North Korean regime is, above all, survival. Its elites can hardly be expected to have read John Mearsheimer’s works, but the regime’s approach appears to mimic the major assumptions of the realist school.1 These people do not make compromises on issues that they, rightly or wrongly, believe concern not merely the survival of their regime but also the survival of their state as an entity and, above all, their own political survival.
This essay first considers the Kim regime’s prioritization of survival and the implications of this orientation for North Korean foreign policy. It then assesses the prospects for the international sanctions regime to successfully pressure Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear weapons program. [End Page 104]
The Kim Regime’s Prioritization of Survival
North Korea is part of a divided nation and faces the far more powerful South Korea. Once an agrarian backwater, lagging well behind the then industrial North until the 1960s, South Korea has become one of the powerhouses of the world economy. The per capita income ratio between North and South Korea (1 to 22 if you believe the Bank of Korea’s most recent estimates) now represents the world’s largest such gap between two countries that share a land border.2 This would be a great contrast anywhere, but in this case the two states are populated by people who speak the same language, claim a common national identity, and often present eventual unification as their supreme goal.
The existence of such a neighbor means that any serious political crisis inside North Korea could easily lead to regime collapse, followed by South Korea’s absorption of the impoverished North. In a sense, we are talking about a much-exaggerated version of the German reunification scenario.3 If such an outcome transpires, the North Korean elites expect no quarter. Unlike the East German leaders, they indeed have engaged in massive violations of human rights for decades. The ratio of prisoners to the total population in North Korea is roughly equal to that of Stalin’s Russia in the early 1950s: the incarceration of political opponents’ entire immediate families remained mandatory until the early 2000s, and the regime conducted terrorist attacks and civilian abductions in earlier stages of North Korean history.4 Thus, the country’s elites have good reason to believe that if their state collapses as a result of a foreign attack or internal popular revolution, they not only will lose their power and (rather modest) affluence but also are likely to be held responsible for past abuses.
To prevent such an outcome, North Korean decision-makers are not only remarkably careful but also remarkably ruthless in their political planning. They care about regime survival above all, treating all other considerations as secondary. This is applicable to economic growth, which in...