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Another (possibly abortive) North Korean nuclear test, another round of hyperbolic headlines about how Kim Jong Un is going off his rockers. Admittedly, this is an impression North Korea’s state media – perhaps the closest approximation we have to a Real Life troll – is always happy to feed.
But hystrionics aside, the reason for North Korea’s pursuit of a nuclear deterrant can be encapsulated in one graph, using my Comprehensive Military Power index.
Throughout the 1970s to early 1980s, North Korea had substantial military preponderance over South Korea, although even then it had no realistic chance of making a breakthrough due to the US presence. Their two lines converged by the waning years of the Cold War. After the withdrawal of Soviet support and the collapse of the North Korean economy, the military balance swung sharply and irrevocably in favor of the South, to the extent that South Korea by itself is now approximately four times as powerful even as it spends a mere 2.5% of its GDP on the military (the figure for North Korea is unknown but might be around 20%). Add in the US presence and the discrepancy becomes all the more extreme.
Recall that due to the exponential nature of Lanchester’s Laws even modest differences in force ratios will, all else equal, result in increasingly crushing victories for the more powerful faction. As such, the goals of North Korea’s prodigal militarization have long shifted from entertaining scenarios in which they could conveivably “win” to merely keeping the costs of South Korean/US preemptive aggression sufficiently high as to forestall them. But this is a race which they cannot win, and indeed, have constantly been slipping behind in.
Maintaining a huge army, which amongst other things has to man the ~10,000 artillery pieces in hardened dugouts close to the DMZ which are to flatten Seoul in the first hours of conflict, is a very expensive and suboptimal security solution. If you can get a nuclear bomb, or ten, to fulfill essentially the same deterrant function, then hundreds of factories can be converted to non-military production and hundreds of thousands of troops can be demobilized back into the civilian economy. This is called “nuclear substitution” in IR theory jargon.
This would fit in well with Kim Jong Un’s demonstrated priorities. Without much fanfare, market relations have been sprouting, and the post-collapse depression has long come to an end. Though this is not saying much, ordinary North Koreans have never lived better; though predictably marked by corruption and rising inequality, today things are vastly better than in the spartan 1970-80s, to say nothing of the famine-wracked 1990s. (This is not just my opinion but that of Andrey Lankov, one of the world’s foremost experts on North Korea).
It appears that Kim Jong Un wants gradual integration into the global economy but only on North Korea’s own terms – not America’s, to be sure, but not China’s either (his uncle thought differently on the latter, which is the ultimate reason why he was executed). It is telling that North Korea’s condition for stopping its nuclear tests is a formal peace treaty with the US. It is probably better to take it as opposed to further sanctions because a better deal isn’t on the horizon. The pursuit of nukes is almost certainly done for this end, as opposed to any bellicose intentions, and its fiery but predictable rhetoric regardless.