What Does Kim Jong-Un Want?

As North Korea ratchets up its nuclear provocations, Fletcher’s Sung-Yoon Lee examines what motivates the regime’s leader

Despite international warnings and U.N. sanctions, North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un has not stopped his country’s nuclear program. If anything, he’s speeding it up.

North Korea proceeded with its most powerful nuclear test to date September 3, an underground blast that it claimed was from a hydrogen bomb. The explosion caused tremors that were felt in South Korea and China, and experts said it was far more powerful than those caused by bombs dropped on Japanese cities during World War II. The test inspired the United States to seek stronger U.N. sanctions, including cutting off all oil and other fuels to North Korea.

Those U.S. proposals were weakened in negotiations with Russia and China, but the U.N. Security Council did agree this week to increased penalties, including a cap on oil exports to North Korea that shaves off about 10 percent of what the country currently receives from China. The latest North Korean test also challenged the U.S. relationship with South Korea, as President Trump criticized that country’s “talk of appeasement” with its northern neighbor.

As tensions smoldered, we spoke with Sung-Yoon Lee, F94, F98, the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies and assistant professor at the Fletcher School, to learn why Kim Jong-Un keeps expanding his nuclear weapons program despite sanctions against his regime.

Tufts Now: Kim Jong-Un claims he’s developing nuclear weapons to deter American invasion, but what does he actually want?

Sung-Yoon Lee: It has always been clear to me that the Kim regime, going back to his father, seeks domination of the South. It’s essential to their survival, because South Korea is a far more successful Korean state. They are competing for pan-Korean legitimacy. I think it’s clear to most people in the world that South Korea has won this contest. It’s a lot more pleasant, more successful, richer, and it’s a magnet for North Korean people. The sheer existence of South Korea presents the greatest long-term threat to North Korea.

So even if the Kim regime doesn’t intend to start another war to “liberate” the South, it needs to get to a position from which it can bully, blackmail, and extort South Korea at will, and censor any of its criticism. Even now, with the U.S. lending full support to the South, North Korea is forcing the South Korean government and public to choose between the false dichotomy of free speech and bombardment (“You dare to criticize us, we bomb you”). In every instance of provocations by Pyongyang over the past decade, Seoul has retreated.

The Kim regime wants a guaranteed extortionist relationship with the South, and perhaps then one day North Korea will prevail over the South, perhaps by threatening to nuke Seoul and have the government capitulate or surrender.

Do you really think North Korea would threaten South Korea with nuclear weapons?

All this sounds like almost science fiction to us, because we have such a strong bias against North Korea and such proclivity to mock the regime, but they’re no joke. They’re bizarre and strange, but they’ve done very well negotiating against the biggest powers in the world.

If Kim Jong-Un did threaten a nuclear strike on Seoul, would the U.S. respond with military force?

One essential line North Korea has to cross is to be able credibly to threaten to nuke a major U.S. city, so that the U.S. leadership has doubts about defending the South. Do we honor our treaty obligation to defend South Korea at the risk of perhaps millions of American lives? I don’t think so.

At that point, what’s entirely plausible in my mind at least is that the U.S. administration will be restrained and perhaps conclude a peace treaty with North Korea, perhaps even normalize diplomatic relations, and then most U.S. troops would leave the region. For a brief period, everyone would cheer.

But when the alliance is not as robust, will the U.S. support a South Korean campaign to hit back against North Korean aggression? I really don’t think so. We are, of course, not at that stage, but I see North Korea having made great progress going up this ladder of escalation.

Now they are far more credible a threat when they say they are going to strike Guam, or even if they say they are going to blow up L.A. It’s no longer laughable. We can’t be dismissive of that threat. And if the U.S. were to serve South Korea up on a silver platter, Americans would be safer, in the short-term. However, in the long term, North Korea’s growing threat to the South and Japan may pull the U.S. right back in, with nuclear weapons in play. That’s the cold reality.

What would South Korea do in that scenario?

The default position by South Korea has been to defuse tensions and give the North concessions. Over the past 20 years, Seoul has given the Kim regime, on the record, over $10 billion, without any monitoring of who actually receives the aid.

Imagine if the North one day has actually pushed the U.S to back off from or abandon the South. Would Seoul then have the stomach to stand up to a threatening Pyongyang? Or would it flinch at the first summons for talks by its extortionist neighbor? The last time the U.S. withdrew troops from South Korea, in 1949, there was war the next year. If the U.S. were to abandon South Korea because of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal now, the dynamics might come to resemble those in mid-June 1950, on the eve of the North’s invasion—a South that’s mesmerized by the chance of calls for reunification talks by Pyongyang and a deceitful North that’s one step away from completing its revolution.

Whether North Korea gets the U.S. to abandon Seoul or embrace Pyongyang, either way, the South’s security will be compromised. Unless, perish the thought, Seoul firms up and stands up to the North by calling it out on human rights, vastly increasing funding for information dissemination into the North, playing its own nuclear card against the nuclear state across the border (which, of course has grave implications of nuclear proliferation), and educating the public about the true nature of the Kim regime. Standing up to the suicide-averse North in these ways would get it to back off and afford greater security to the South.

Does all this argue for a preemptive strike by the U.S. against North Korea?

No. North Korea, unlike Iraq, Afghanistan, or Syria, has both the capability and intent to shoot back at the U.S. homeland, with apparently nuclear-tipped missiles. Preemptive strikes should be a last resort. What’s more, there is no guarantee that such strikes would destroy all—or even half—of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and facilities. We simply don’t know where all of the uranium enrichment facilities and nuclear stockpiles are kept.

You’ve consistently argued that tough sanctions—and enforcement of those sanctions—are the best way to influence Kim Jong-Un. But current efforts don’t seem to be slowing him down. What should the international community be doing differently?

In a word, enforce sanctions. Don’t relax them prematurely. Wait at least two years for the enforcement of sanctions to bear results. No nation, including the U.S., has ever enforced sanctions against North Korea in any meaningful way. For example, the U.S. has yet to fine the largest of the Chinese banks and state companies that are in blatant violation of U.S. laws and U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding Pyongyang.

By constraining Kim’s access to money over time, Washington could compel him to freeze his nuclear and missile programs, open up his country, and dismantle his gulags. He won’t give up his nuclear weapons unless he is under extreme financial stress, no longer able to placate his generals and facing the specter of regime collapse. Washington would need to let him and his cronies know that there was a way out, that he could reform or quietly go into exile. He doesn’t deserve a peaceful exile, but it would be a small price to pay for liberating the Korean peninsula.

Heather Stephenson can be reached at heather.stephenson@tufts.edu.

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