The nuclearization of North Korea is seen as the result of Kim Jong-un’s aggressive foreign policies. In line with realist theory, North Korea is instead simply pursuing a self-help strategy of power maximization to ensure the survival of its ruling elite class. This article shows how a western bias in the political debate has influenced the perception of the public and caused confusion among media and political experts.
Before the Second World War the Korean Peninsula was occupied by Japan. During the war both American and Soviet forces pushed out the defeated Japanese from Korea, taking control of the Northern and Southern part of the peninsula, respectively. In 1948, during this period of transition, China and the Soviet Union promoted the formation of a communist regime in North Korea led by Kim Il-sung, who was depicted as a hero of the guerrilla wars against Japanese forces during the 30s. The United States and the United Nations strongly opposed the formation of the new government in the North, claiming that the only respectable government was the one being formed, at the same time, in South Korea’s Seoul.
In the subsequent two years in North Korea the desire grew for a military takeover of the South with the intention of reunifying all Koreans under a communist ruling regime. In 1950, led by the strategic military mind of Kim Il-sung, and thanks to the military support of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or simply North Korea) invaded the South, highly unprepared for an assault from the North. With the United States becoming strongly involved, the Soviet Union decided not to provide ground forces. Seoul and Pyongyang were repeatedly assaulted by North and South Korea’s armies until the situation reached a stalemate, leading to the 1953 Korean Armistice that is still in effect at the present time.
The history of American-North Korean relations, as seen, starts with a direct ideological and military confrontation. It is therefore unsurprising that the following 50 and more years have been characterized by a climate of hostility.
During the ‘60s and ‘70s, defections of American soldiers to North Korea and vice versa occurred on a few occasions, as well as border incidents where American soldiers were killed in 1976. There were other occasions of confrontation, such as when the USS Pueblo spy ship was captured in the Sea of Japan in 1968 or when, as emerged from recently declassified documents, North Koreans shot down an American fighter jet in 1969.
More recently, during the 90’s, the DPRK started the development of nuclear weapons, meeting a strong resistance from the international community, in particular from the United States. The crisis almost led to a war in 1994, when the Clinton administration strongly considered a military intervention. Clinton’s government, nevertheless, reached on that occasion an agreement to freeze and slow down nuclear proliferation in the DPRK.
However, within the next two decades North Korea successfully managed to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (2017) with the ability to strike the United States, as well as nuclear bombs (the first nuclear tests were conducted in 2006) and hydrogen bombs (first tested in 2016). This period was characterized by accusations, retaliations, international sanctions and threats, alternated with periods of diplomacy and negotiations, until the establishment of Trump at the White House. After a start characterized by tension and hostility, the American president and Kim Jong-un initiated high-level talks and a potential peace process.
Based on the working idea, North Korea would give up its nuclear program in exchange of a relief of sanctions and the maintenance of the status quo, with a solid and self-determined communist regime.
Last but not least, the relations between United States and North Korea have been and are still strongly – negatively – affected by the close and friendly relations between America and South Korea, given that the latter provides a strategic location to monitor Russian and Chinese activity in the region. South Korea is additionally the sixth largest trading partner of the United States, making it also important for American’s economy.
North Korea enjoyed no military support from China or the Soviet Union after the end of the Korean War in 1953 and its close and underdeveloped economy led the country into periods of extreme poverty and famine. Yet, North Korea’s regime has managed to survive 70 years despite being perceived as a growing threat for the international community and, particularly, for the United States.
North Korea has successfully developed a nuclear arsenal, challenging the same international rules stipulated by the Nuclear non-Proliferation Treaty, which has initially signed in 1985. And yet, the regime has never been directly challenged.
How did the Kim dynasty manage to stay in power, avoiding wars against more powerful nations, while challenging them militarily and disobeying international law?
The logic is rather simple and the answer can be found in any textbook of International Relations (IR). North Korea’s leadership has developed a fully realist strategy when approaching international superpowers.
Realism is the most largely diffused theory in IR, characterized by the belief that our society is anarchically structured. As a consequence, realists believe that states are constantly in a situation of uncertainty when trying to interpret the intentions of other states. They reason that states, the predominant actors in the international realm, should maximize their power – both economic and military – to prevent and deter other states from undermining their sovereign rights.
This situation of uncertainty, referred to as ‘security dilemma’, is the rationale for building up armies and weapons. Any threat, even if potential and perhaps unmotivated, should be treated with the maximal care. This translates into big efforts to show enemies – or simply potential enemies – that it is better not to wound the sovereignty of a state.
North Korea’s regime has always played according to realism. It has constantly tried to maximize its power, showing potential enemies it is capable of defending, and even attacking, states with well structured armies and military logistic. In recent years, North Korea has launched missiles over Japan and has built a reliable nuclear arsenal.
This show of force has led to an international crisis, with hard and bitter words coming from Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump.
However, this affront ended up with a meeting between the two leaders, where they talked about peace and denuclearization, proving – in this case – that the most basic strategic approach taken by Kim Jong-un has served its purpose: the maintenance of its ruling dynasty over the North and the possibility of a relief of international sanctions.
The very fast series of events that resulted in the current situation has led to a great confusion in political experts analyses and in western media’s representations of the North Korean’s regime. In fact, in a very short time, Kim changed his international image from an irrational dictator to a politician with a sense for diplomacy.
Just a few months before the meeting with Trump, Kim was generally depicted as an absolute and resolute tyrant, as a very dangerous element for the international community. Basically, a mentally deranged man with the wish of building a nuclear arsenal for an aggressive purpose: “a little rocket man”, as Trump himself defined him.
Soon after, media were surprised he could even smile, that he could be capable of presenting himself in such a diplomatic way in front of the whole world.
Even Trump changed his view, saying in a tweet that
“[…]the President believes that his relationship with Kim Jong Un is a very good and warm one […]”– Donald Trump.
What confused the media and astonished political experts?
Media outlets often use a narrative approach to news reporting. To explain what happens in the world, the news media generally publishes reports in the form of a story. These reports, however, are often biased, made to meet a certain taste of the public.
Over time and years the western rhetoric about North Korea and its regime has reached the ideology of most of the people, particularly in Europe and in the United States.
News media kept promoting a view of the regime that met the expectations of the public, a way of obtaining a larger number of readers. The tendency of selecting and searching for readings that are in line with our pre-established way of opining on certain topics is indeed deeply rooted in our mind.
Although it is difficult to state, it is very likely that the general opinion over North Korea was initially established by how news spread within the public. In other words, a certain bias was initially imposed by will, but it may have then spread and evolved independently.
Political analysts were also confused and astonished by Kim’s unexpected moves, with many still rejecting the idea that Kim could have serious intentions to denuclearise.
Given that realism is based on a relative – and not absolute – gain of power, political analysts consider it almost impossible that a country that is much less powerful than another, could pose a serious security threat to the latter using the same strategic instruments that superpowers use to maintain the status quo.
Basically, the view of a nuclearized North Korea with a deranged leader serves to define a demarcation line separating the world’s leaders (the United States) from the ‘little rocket enemy’, the DPRK.
North Korea may have reached a level of armament that poses a threat to the United States, but the discourse over a dangerous regime keeps the door open for military intervention. Instead the view of a rational and diplomatic regime puts the United States and North Korea on the same level, something that realist political analysts – generally having a western bias – can hardly accept, given that they consider the United States as the world’s main superpower, only challengeable by China.
To note: this article does not discuss how North Korean’s regime deals with internal issues. It does not discuss human rights violations in North Korea. It does not express opinions on whether the regime is a positive or negative one. Rather, it explains how discourse can deeply influence the way media, political analysts and eventually the public perceive events of the world. Mostly, it explains how a radical change of discourse, such as the one brilliantly adopted by Kim Jong-un, can disclose narrative biases.
This article has been commented: read “Kim wants denuclearization, not Trump“
Update 22.11.19: the negotiations between North Korea and the United States are still ongoing. North Korea slowed down – but did not halt – its nuclear program, thus confirming, more than one year later, the validity of the opinions expressed in this article.
Received: 17.9.18, Ready: 25.9.18, Editors: SR, RG.