Kim Issues Nuclear Threat in Quest for Respect Despite Sanctions

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un.

Photographer: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images
  • North Korea braces for impact from United Nations measures
  • Domestic factors preserve arms program in face of sanctions

The international community is seeking to tighten the screws on North Korea’s economy. But with Kim Jong Un motivated mostly by his quest for prestige at home, tougher United Nations sanctions may not dampen his nuclear ambitions.

Hours after the UN Security Council unanimously passed sanctions targeting North Korea’s banks, mineral exports and cargo vessels, the country fired a volley of short-range projectiles. Kim ordered his troops to be ready to launch nuclear warheads at any moment, according to state media. His regime had already urged people to prepare for the impact of the penalties and called for greater economic self-reliance.

North Korea's Nukes

At the heart of North Korea’s defiance -- as shown in its January nuclear test and February long-range rocket launch -- is Kim’s ultimate goal of forcing the world to recognize his country as a nuclear power. That could ensure him a place in the annals of Kim family rule and the respect of the elite, including military chiefs. It would also help him consolidate the power he’s been seeking primarily though a series of bloody purges.

 “One part of the nuclear test and rocket launch activity is about Kim Jong Un boosting his domestic profile, giving him accomplishments that he can use for internal retail politics,” said Michael Madden, North Korea Leadership Watch blog editor and a contributor to 38 North, a Johns Hopkins University website. “A lot of the veneration around him is for internal audiences, specifically for indoctrination of certain populations.”

Taking Control

Kim took control of North Korea’s 1.2-million strong army when he came to power after the death of his father, longtime ruler Kim Jong Il, in late 2011. He has bolstered his grip with purges, the latest being the execution of his chief of general staff in early February, according to South Korea’s government.

The removal of senior officials has created a sense of fear among the elite and prompted defections of senior figures, according to a report by the intelligence arm of South Korea’s Defense Ministry. The task now for Kim is turning that fear into genuine loyalty, it said.

One way to do that is to burnish his image with nuclear accomplishments. Kim has overseen two of North Korea’s four nuclear tests and rewritten the constitution to enshrine the country’s standing as a nuclear power. He ordered three long-range rocket launches in fewer than five years, while it took his father more than 10 years to launch as many.

Adapting to Sanctions

The rockets are important as they show development of ballistic missile capacity that could eventually carry nuclear warheads across the Pacific. Meanwhile, international talks known as the six-party process have not taken place over North Korea’s nuclear arms since Kim took charge.

North Korea has shown it can adapt to sanctions, some of which have been in place for a decade. It operates on the margin of the international financial system and its global trade is small, making it a difficult target. The country exported about $3.6 billion of goods in 2014, with about 80 percent going to China. South Korea, by comparison, had $605 billion in exports.

Years of sanctions have also failed to turn North Koreans against the Kim family, which has blamed the U.S. for everything from devastating famines to the inevitability of heavy military spending. South Korea restarted propaganda broadcasts across the border earlier this year, hoping to skirt North Korea’s control on information that has also been tested by the spread of mobile phones, pirated DVDs and smuggled memory sticks.

Elevating Credentials

While his grandfather Kim Il Sung sought nuclear arms as a security guarantee and Kim Jong Il used them to extract aid, the 30-something Kim has turned to nuclear weapons to elevate his credentials among ordinary North Koreans, who had little knowledge of him before he was unveiled as the planned successor a little more than a year before his father died.

Days after the Feb. 7 launch of a satellite into orbit, North Korean state television aired footage of Kim sitting at a mahogany desk in front of what appeared to an Apple Inc. laptop as he flew in a private jet to the launch pad. It also showed him giving a pep talk to a group of scientists in front of a rocket booster.

“I doubt this is very much about satellites, aside from domestic propaganda purposes, in other words, ‘aren’t we great, aren’t we advanced because we have a satellite’,” said Jim Walsh, a research associate in the Security Studies Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It may be more centrally about a domestic audience, consolidation of Kim’s rule and ‘legitimacy’ of the state.”

‘Sword of Justice’

North Korea’s government calls its nuclear arms a “precious sword of justice” that would prevent it from being toppled like regimes in Iraq and Libya. Shortly after the nuclear test, North Korea urged the Obama administration to “get used to North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.” Many arms experts question North Korea’s ability to produce nuclear bombs small enough to be mounted on long-range missiles.

While Kim refrained in October from mentioning “nuclear” in his speech at a Workers’ Party event as he stood next to a Chinese official in Pyongyang, hours later he mobilized thousands of North Koreans to hold up torches to form the words “nuclear power” at a rally attended by the same visitor.

“Prestige and respect are always important factors in international relations -- and unquestionably, this is a motivating factor for the young, inexperienced and self-isolated Mr. Kim,” said Mitchel Wallerstein, former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for counterproliferation policy.

Fixation with nuclear prestige however risks deepening North Korea’s isolation and reducing its chances to revive the economy.

“In reality, further provocative military moves are going to achieve the opposite of the desired result,” said Wallerstein, now president of Baruch College in New York. “In other words, not enhanced prestige and respect, but further sanctions and, if they continue, a kinetic military strike against the North’s nuclear and missile launch facilities.”

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