Mon, Jul 18, 2016 - Page 7 News List

Maybe North Korea’s nuclear goals are not a farce after all

The country’s recent flurry of weapons tests suggest that it is now seeking a real, functioning nuclear weapons program

By Max Fisher  /  NY Times News Service, WASHINGTON

Illustration: Yusha

Under traditional understandings of North Korea, the country’s test launch of two medium-range ballistic missiles late last month should not have happened. Neither should its failed launch, on Saturday last week, of a submarine-based missile.

However, they did. That has brought new urgency to a growing conversation among many North Korea observers: Is our understanding of this country fundamentally wrong?

The country’s weapons programs have long been understood as meant not for immediate military purposes, but to rally North Koreans behind the leadership and extract concessions from foreign governments. North Korea’s bluster, in this view, is not sincere, but just another set piece in an elaborate, never-ending show.

However, this does not adequately explain North Korea’s recent flurry of weapons tests, often using unproven technology that tends to fail many times, bringing embarrassment to a government that prefers to project confidence, and that incurs heavy diplomatic and financial tolls the country cannot afford.

According to a growing chorus of experts such tests suggest that North Korea is now seeking, in a more focused and determined way, a real, functioning nuclear weapons program — and could be on the way to getting it.

“The conventional wisdom treats these tests and strategic programs as political tools,” International Institute for Strategic Studies academic Mark Fitzpatrick said. “They are more than that.”

This realization is forcing analysts to rethink not just nuclear issues, but also the underlying goals and motivations of the North Korean state itself, with sweeping implications for how one of the world’s most secretive nations is understood.

North Korea has had only three leaders, each of whom has faced the same problem: governing a small country with few resources, outnumbered by powerful enemies.

North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung used diplomacy. By allying with the Soviet Union and China — and playing the two off each other — he secured protection and support.

His son, Kim Jong-il, came to power in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union collapsed and China’s interest in backing a rogue nation waned. In response, he put the country on a permanent war footing. Kim Jong-il began developing missiles and nuclear weapons, periodically stirring up geopolitical crises that promoted nationalism at home and won international concessions abroad.

Foreign governments and analysts concluded that these programs, which North Korea tested erratically, but with great fanfare, were meant primarily for political rather than military ends. The country’s leadership was seen as reactive and focused on preserving the “status quo.” State propaganda, warning endlessly of war with South Korea and the US, was dismissed as merely a tool for internal control.

That view has held for 20 years, through Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011 and the ascension of his son, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

However, three years into Kim Jong-un’s reign, as he carried out a series of high-level political purges, something seemed to shift.

“In 2014, they started testing things like crazy,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear weapons expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California.

The country also built a new underground nuclear testing facility.

Because most of the tests failed — and because of popular depictions of the country as silly and backward — they were shrugged off as farce. It was “easy to kind of laugh at them,” Lewis said.

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