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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

North Korea's Strategic Intentions

North Korea's Strategic Intentions - Cover

Authored by Dr. Andrew Scobell.

July 2005

41 Pages

Brief Synopsis

Dr. Andrew Scobell examines the topic of Pyongyang's strategic intentions. He first identifies a broad spectrum of expert views and distills this wisdom into three "packages" of possible strategic intentions. He then sets out to test which package appears to reflect actual North Korean policy. While he opines that one is more likely than the others, he concludes that it is impossible to say with certainty which package most closely resembles reality. As a result, he suggests that further probing of Pyongyang's intentions is advisable.


North Korea is probably the most mysterious and inaccessible country in the world today. Officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the Pyongyang regime is headed by perhaps the most mercurial and enigmatic political leader alive. The regime Kim leads is generally considered to be one of the most repressive in existence, with a vast gulag, a massive security apparatus, and an extensive system of controls. Despite the facade of a powerful party-state possessing an enormous military, the North Korean economy is in shambles, hundreds of thousands of people are living either as refugees in China or as displaced persons inside their own country, and millions have died from starvation and related diseases.

Topping the U.S. list of concerns about North Korea is its nuclear program; Washington is extremely alarmed not only that Pyongyang is developing a nuclear capability for its own use, but also proliferating nuclear material and technology. But the United States and other countries are also concerned about other weapons of mass destruction (WMD) North Korea possesses, as well as its ballistic missile program. Moreover, North Korea’s conventional military forces are sizeable, with significant capabilities, and confront the armed forces of the Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States across the Demilitarized Zone.

This monograph analyzes North Korea’s strategic intentions and motivations. First, the views of leading analysts of North Korea regarding Pyongyang’s strategic intentions are surveyed and examined. All of the analysts concur on a number of conclusions: (1) that the North Korean regime is not irrational; (2) this rationality leaves North Korea’s leadership with a heightened sense of insecurity; (3) North Korea’s rulers―or at least some of them―appear to be acutely aware of the reform dilemma they face.

This third conclusion is particularly significant. Because North Korea’s leaders fear that they would be undermining their positions if the regime adopts comprehensive reforms, they are reluctant to move down this slippery slope. However, without significant reform, North Korea’s leaders realize they are probably condemning their regime to the ash heap of history. Pyongyang is probably more fearful of initiating change that it fears will spiral out of control than it is of doing little or nothing.

Three alternative packages of Korean strategic intentions are identified: (1) the modest aim of regime survival; (2) a driving desire to maintain a strong, independent, and autonomous North Korea; (3) an ambitious and extremely aggressive goal―unification on North Korea’s terms.

Three kinds of observable manifestations would indicate which of the three sets of strategic intentions North Korea is pursuing: propaganda, policy, and planning. An analysis of North Korean ideology and rhetoric does not give a clear indication of which package (#1, #2, or #3) would be selected. One point does seem very clear: an unrelenting focus on maintaining a robust conventional national defense capability and building a nuclear capacity. Examining past and present policies reveals consistent national priorities of focusing on maintaining military power, centrally planned economic development, and initiatives promoting national unification. At the same time, North Korea has depended for decades on substantial external assistance in the form of food, fuel, and technology to compensate for the serious inadequacies of its Stalinist economy.

An examination of North Korean planning indicators suggests that the regime continues to think about and prepare for the future. While little evidence suggests that new thinking pervades Pyongyang’s approach to security or unification matters, there are significant indications that North Korea is contemplating further economic reforms. However, what is under consideration appears far removed from systemic transformation and complete opening.

A careful analysis of propaganda, policy, and planning leads to a high degree of skepticism that North Korea is focused on mere survival. Pyongyang appears to have far more ambitious intentions, and nothing indicates desperation on the part of North Korean leaders. A conceivable possibility is that Pyongyang’s intentions are focused on arms control, a policy of economic reform and opening, and pursuing some form of peaceful confederation with Seoul. However, actual Pyongyang policies and planning do not seem to bear this out. Evidence from planning is unclear so the data remain inconclusive.

A real possibility is that North Korea’s key strategic goals are to build up its WMD programs, engage in parasitic extortionism, and pursue unification by force or coercion. According to Pyongyang’s propaganda, maintaining its military strength is the regime’s foremost priority. This is born out by examinations of implemented policy, planning, and ruminations about the future.

The limited evidence available does not suggest a policy of thoroughgoing reform. North Korea’s history of central planning and the absence of any obvious blue print for how to proceed indicate that systemic reform is unlikely. Pyongyang appears likely to continue to hope that ad hoc changes, coupled with continued foreign aid and income generated from arms sales, tourism, and criminal activity, will be adequate to meet the country’s needs. As for unification, although propaganda stresses using peaceful means, it also urges a united front between North and South Korea against the United States. An examination of the record of unification policy suggests that Pyongyang believes that South Korea’s government enjoys no real popular support and is merely a U.S. puppet. With the United States out of the picture, North Korea thinks it could relatively easily bring about the collapse of the South Korean regime and unification under the auspices of Pyongyang through limited military acts.

It is unlikely that North Korea’s current leaders, at least the highest echelon, have lost all hope and have fatalistically accepted that the end of the DPRK looms on the horizon. North Korea’s rulers are influenced by history, ideology, and notions of nationalism that produce what social scientists like to term a “bounded rationality.” The author’s conclusion is that North Korea’s senior leaders are determined and confident that they will not only survive but that they will be able to restore and revitalize their regime.

However, in the final analysis, insufficient data exist to say with absolute certainty what North Korea’s strategic intentions are. Any one of these three “packages” outlined is plausible. Intentions could conceivably also fluctuate among the three, depending on how the regime assesses the situation at a particular point. The United States needs to probe and prod the Pyongyang regime to learn for sure; to keep an open mind and continually monitor what North Korea says, does, and prepares for. The United States should look for consistencies and inconsistencies. The distrust and suspicion are such that some intermediate confidence-building measures are necessary.

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