Here we are again. North Korea has triggered international condemnation through testing its missile system. Missiles are, by their very nature, terrifying, especially when equipped by a regime, in the words of the South Korean foreign ministry, prone to “irrationality” and “provocative” behaviour. Like a broken record, Washington has again reaffirmed their commitment to “reinforce and strengthen” South-East Asian allies.
Is this common perception of North Korea’s missile system, and the regime, valid? May the repeated reaction actually be counter-productive?
Is North Korea preparing for war?
There is an underlying assumption that the North Korean regime’s missile and nuclear programme exists to be used as a weapon. This, initially, seems pretty obvious – nuclear weapons and missiles are one of, if not the most, destructive weapons devised by mankind, capable of killing tens of thousands in the event of war. Perhaps the rise in recent tests indicates that North Korea is preparing for its long-cited war against its ‘imperialist adversaries’.
The current state of North Korea’s conventional armed forces, however, make this highly unlikely. Outdated weaponry, a severe lack of fuel for its tank and aircraft, a rigid and inflexible command structure, and reports of malnutrition makes engaging in conflict, and thus using their missiles, a self-destructing idea for the regime. This is made even more ludicrous when considering their key opponent’s considerable military advantages (for example, the ability to consistently fund their war efforts; possessing the most technologically advanced weaponry available etc.)
This is combined with how the North Korean missile system is, despite the recent news, unreliable at best. Sure, the regime is capable of developing larger, more sophisticated missiles and nuclear armaments, but whether they could actually be used is another story – the regime suffered two missile test failures in October 2016 alone, and an unsuccessful satellite launch back in 2012. A gun is not much of a threat if it cannot be fired.
Despite these severe limitations, the international narrative continues – in the eyes of many nations, the missile programme, and North Korea as a whole, constitutes a ‘direct threat’ as a result of their missile programme and sizeable armed forces. This hype caters for the missile programme’s actual purpose –
What is the actual purpose of the missile system?
To get North Korea attention and significance. But this isn’t getting attention for attention’s sake; the regime has repeatedly exploited the ‘threatening’ persona conjured up by the world’s governments and media to obtain life-depending aid, either it be food, fuel or infrastructure.
This has been used successfully on numerous occasions – back in the 1990s, for example, the regime threatened to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty of Nuclear Weapons and turn South Korea into a “sea of fire”. In response, South Korea, Japan and the US funded the construction of two brand new light water reactors, regular free shipments of heavy oil, and large quantities of humanitarian aid. What did North Korea have to do in return? ‘Promise’ to freeze its nuclear programme – a win-win for the regime.
More recently, in 2006, North Korea’s first nuclear test (despite is apparent failure) prompted the UN Security Council to pass ‘Resolution 1718’, placing economic sanctions on the country. China’s signing of the resolution gave the international impression that, perhaps, China was finally stepping back from its problematic ally; yet, Chinese aid and economic cooperation with North Korea continually surged afterwards, all the way up to 2013.
It’s simple – North Korea creates international tension and fear; exploits it through supposed ‘concessions’ and ‘negotiations’; proceeds to reap the benefits.
North Korea’s missile system serves a dual purpose, however – it is also used as internal propaganda. Like most dictatorships, the North Korean regime requires a scapegoat to blame its economic and social hardships on, thus rallying its disheartened population against a common enemy. The ‘outside world’ (excluding China) is this scapegoat. The regime’s narrative, hardwired deep into the psyche of practically all North Koreans since birth, describes how the imperialistic behaviour of capitalist nations, especially the US, threatens the North Korean people’s way of life.
The international communities response to such events, therefore, plays directly into this story. Washington, Tokyo and Seoul, from the North Korean average citizen’s perspective, appear hell-bent on forming coalitions to surround and destroy North Korea; the US are, yet again, playing the role of ‘world police’, refusing to let the ‘people’s utopia’ be at peace. This does nothing to undo the mass indoctrination performed by the regime on its people, and only further bolsters its mental grasp.
So, is the North Korean missile system a threat?
No. It will never be used. It will be used, however, to get the regime what it needs – internal control, and foreign aid. The North Korean regime, despite its common depiction, and not inept. Quite the contrary – they have managed to survive countless near-death-experiences, far exceeded their viewed life expectancy, and have managed to garner the attention of the world’s leading nations to its own benefit.
The missile system should not be underestimated – but not for the reasons you might think.
For more information on the ‘real’ North Korea, I highly recommend reading Andrei Lankov’s, aptly named, ‘The Real North Korea’.