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North Korea's nuclear ambition

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By Edward Oh

The current conventional wisdom is that North Korea's motivation for acquiring an atomic arsenal is to establish a bulwark against American invasion and burnish its nascent reputation as a respected nuclear power. While true, what analyses of Pyongyang's provocations often ignore is the fact that the North's nuclear ambitions are ultimately driven not by perceived international threats, but by domestic imperatives. To understand this is to truly appreciate why North Korea will never agree to denuclearization. The best that we can probably hope for is a freeze on further nuclear weapons development.

On January 1, 1995, Kim Jong Il set in motion North Korea's official adoption of its Songun (military-first) doctrine as the organizing principle for its society, thus laying the foundation for the North's unbridled pursuit of a nuclear capability. The significance of this event, in trying to divine Pyongyang's nuclear intentions today, is not that it happened, but when it happened. Kim Jong Il's pronouncement occurred less than three months after North Korea and the United States signed the 1994 Agreed Framework which established the parameters for denuclearization and normalization of relations.

It is telling that almost immediately after garnering a windfall of U.S. concessions - fuel aid; the promise of light water nuclear technology; suspension of Team Spirit joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea; easing of trade restrictions; security guarantees ― North Korea still decided to set upon what now appears to be an irreversible collision course towards confrontation today on the ICBM issue. In addition to preemptively consigning to farce over a decade of negotiations with the United States that would follow in later years, Pyongyang's actions put the lie ― in 1995! -to a favorite hobbyhorse bandied to this day by many North Korea experts ― that the North's nuclear program is really a ploy for negotiating leverage on its economic and security concerns.

What, then, is Kim Jong Un actually trying to achieve? The more apt question might be: what is Kim trying to maintain? The answer is the North Korean system, itself.

Since the Korean War, the foundation of Pyongyang's propaganda edifice has been the existential threat posed by the United States. The North Korean regime would never be able to sustain the level of anti-American fervor it has instilled in its people for generations, if it were seen as acquiescing to American pressure on denuclearization or engaging in genuine economic cooperation with the United States.

Hatred and fear of the United States and its supposed imperialist designs on the peninsula have provided the Pyongyang regime with the linchpin for its legitimacy. The North Korean people regard the Kim dynasty as their protector against American attack. Anything that would cause them to question the trans-generational narrative the government has carefully cultivated would be calamitous to the system's survival.

North Korea will one day collapse under the sheer weight of its own lies. Until then, the United States has nothing to lose by trying to engage Pyongyang, without preconditions, and attempt detente on the nuclear front. Given the North's legacy of duplicity, any negotiations may eventually devolve into more diplomatic kabuki theater. At least this time, however, we will better appreciate that what the regime truly fears is not the United States, but its own people.

The writer is an an attorney practicing in Washington, D.C. Write to


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