North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo: AFP/ KCNA via KNS
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo: AFP/ KCNA via KNS

North Korea thought leaders and policymakers have been committing the foreign policy equivalent of medical malpractice for decades. They have been attempting to treat the disease that is North Korea with prescriptions to which the country has proven time and time again to be wholly resistant. Meanwhile, the nuclear threat has only metastasized. Progress towards a more successful North Korea policy must first begin with a candid acknowledgement that our posture towards Pyongyang has been afflicted for too long by patronizing arrogance and feckless complacency.

Throughout this prolonged nightmare nuclear saga, the United States and its allies have refused to view Kim Jong Un – or his father before him – as anything other than a dime-a-dozen despot of a failed dictatorship who could eventually be plied or pressured into normative behavior. We have repeatedly recycled various shopworn diplomatic levers to either convince or coerce North Korea to denuclearize, in the deluded hope that a breakthrough agreement may finally be within reach, only to walk away incredulous at Pyongyang’s seemingly inexplicable intransigence.

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Ideology uber alles

The problem starts with our policy presumptions. The West has incorrectly regarded these hereditary autocrats as the Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi of the Korean Peninsula. The more accurate model would be Jim Jones of Jonestown infamy, except cyanide punch and rifles have been swapped for chemical weapons and nuclear missiles.

Understanding Pyongyang’s ideological motivations illuminates the endless cat-and-mouse games it has played with the international community for over half a century, and explains its capricious abrogation of every agreement and treaty to which it was a signatory since the 1953 Armistice. For example, grasping North Korea’s ideology demystifies Kim Jong Il’s otherwise seemingly incomprehensible declaration of the North’s Songun (“military-first”) policy as official state dogma on January 1, 1995, mere weeks after garnering exactly the kinds of concessions and security guarantees (under the 1994 Agreed Framework) analysts claim to this day Pyongyang so desperately seeks.

At the time, Kim Jong Il saw the encroaching storm clouds of famine that would go on to decimate his country. Yet, rather than leverage the goodwill born of its adoption of the Agreed Framework’s denuclearization regime to request economic assistance and food aid from the US and other countries for his people, Kim chose to hunker behind the imperatives of ideology that made accepting help from anyone – much less the North’s mortal enemy America – unthinkable, at the eventual cost of hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of his people’s lives. Even when Pyongyang finally accepted food aid from the US a few years later, having been brought to its knees by the ongoing famine, it declared the bags of grain emblazoned with “USA” to be tribute from a cowed America, and then promptly redirected most of them to its military.

What this sordid history teaches us is that the happy ending of US-North Korea rapprochement is nowhere to be found in North Korea’s ideological plot and that perhaps the most effectual way to deal with the regime, over the long term, is to subvert the doctrinal premises of its propaganda playbook.

If you can’t beat them, subvert them

A more sophisticated and supple North Korea foreign policy will be one that leverages the fact that North Korea operates as a nation-cult. North Korean society is organized around a worldview that deifies the Kim Jong Un dynasty as its ordained protector against a hostile world, exemplified in an imperial United States. What the West regards as the over-the-top propaganda that regularly spews out of Pyongyang’s official mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency, is actually the intellectual daily bread of every North Korean citizen. In fact, the more virulent, racist aspects of North Korean doctrine are saved for its elementary school lesson plans, rather than for general consumption on the regime’s various Internet outlets which are made available to the world.

North Korea’s ideology explains everything we need to know about Pyongyang’s bellicosity along the DMZ, its missile launches off the Sea of Japan, and its obfuscations across the negotiating table. The regime, from Kim Jong Un on down, operates by a playbook scripted over generations by its propaganda. Every aspect of North Korean society acts, wittingly or unwittingly, as characters whose actions are dictated by the demands of an ideological plot that has the true and pure Korean race standing down and ultimately defeating its enemies, with the goal of eventually reunifying the peninsula under Pyongyang’s terms.

The stark truth is that North Korea’s perennial provocations are not just a means to an end, but an end, in itself.

Given the fundamental importance of ideology to the North Korean state, a successful strategy towards Pyongyang must erode the propaganda pillars that serve as the backbone of that ideology. Sanctions, international isolation, and military brinkmanship will tend to feed into the regime’s propaganda narrative, while engagement embodies the best hope of undermining it, notwithstanding the North’s ability to spin any event to its propaganda advantage. In short, we must try to directly engage the regime – including, perhaps, Kim Jong Un, himself – if for no other reason than to hopefully avert any misunderstanding or miscalculation that could lead to catastrophe.

Kim Jong Unhinged

Unfortunately, Kim’s nature presents us with no responsible policy alternative. This callow tyrant has repeatedly demonstrated a capacity for immaturity, impetuosity, ruthlessness, grandiosity, and violence, a dangerous set of traits for someone in control of nuclear weapons. In his brief reign, Kim has ordered an unprecedented purge of hundreds of government officials and their families, including children, by execution or banishment to labor or re-education camps. Purported reasons ranged from treason to nodding off in the Great Successor’s presence. Many of these hapless apparatchiks were loyal lieutenants of his father and grandfather both of whom have probably already turned over in their glass sarcophagi.

Not even family members are immune. We know this young dictator had his uncle, Jang Song Taek, killed, and reports are that Kim Jong Un is behind the assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, at Kuala Lumpur International airport. Rumor has it that anti-aircraft guns and mortars may have become part of Kim’s extermination tool kit, which, if true, would point to a juvenile flair for diabolical theatricality, at best, and an instinct for grossly asymmetrical retaliation, at worst.

While the prevailing consensus is that Kim’s paranoia drives these purges and executions, his actions appear to be fueled just as often by pure egotistic sadism. In terms of factors that may impact the odds of avoiding nuclear Armageddon, it is a toss-up as to which mindset we would prefer this tyrant-sociopath to possess.

Digging deeper, close study of Kim shows a ruler who is prone to fits of rage over petty matters such as when state television showed him berating officials over weeds peeking through cracks in concrete, while on a field guidance tour. Film of Kim petulantly yanking fistfuls of grass out of the ground is priceless, but also illuminates a troubling volatility of temperament. He appears to act on pure adolescent whim, based on his push to build a dolphinarium, water park, and luxury ski resort in a nation unable to feed most of its own citizens. His attempts at also being a music and sports impresario – the short-skirted, all-female Moranbong Band, the counterfeit Disney character show, the Technicolor Dennis Rodman – all attest to an unbridled and childish vanity completely divorced from reality.

In the end, what is revealed is a homicidal megalomaniac with sophomoric tendencies and hair-trigger proclivities now in control of a burgeoning nuclear stockpile whose reach already envelopes South Korea and Japan and will soon touch the US homeland. A compounding cause for concern is also the fact that Kim is beholden to no one. There are no old-guard generals with whom he needs to curry favor or Workers’ Party puppet masters from whom he needs to take his cues. Under its Supreme Leader system, Kim is the North Korean regime.

No one seriously worries whether Vladimir Putin, in a fit of pique and after one Stoli too many, would order a nuclear strike against American interests. The fact that the same cannot be categorically presumed regarding Kim is what makes North Korea a problem the United States and its allies must not continue to back-burner, but rather confront with renewed assertiveness, creativity, flexibility, and resolve.

North Korea First Principles

Reports are that President Trump has ordered a review of U.S. North Korea policy, which is to be applauded. Any policy reassessment should be informed by these first principles regarding the North Korean regime. First, Pyongyang’s nuclear provocations are a function of the ideology that forms the foundation of the North Korean state, itself; that ideology is both a predicate for North Korea’s behavior and a predictor of it. Second, Kim will never relinquish his nuclear capability, and the fundamental reason why rests not on external threats, but ideological necessity. Third, the regime’s legitimacy and longevity are directly tied to its people’s isolation. This axiom, by the way, necessarily precludes the possibility of North Korea ever normalizing relations with the United States or integrating with the world economy.

Studying North Korea’s propaganda playbook will hopefully enable the development of a more potent foreign policy – one that will effectively counter Pyongyang’s behavior over the long term. All that is required is the courage to step outside the intellectual prison of outmoded assumptions and stale ideas.

Edward Oh is a lawyer and writer in Washington, DC. He has published articles on the role of North Korea's ideology and propaganda in its nuclear program.