Nuclear Tests and North Korea’s Identity

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When North Korea conducted its third nuclear test on February 12, 2013, it was seen as a response to international sanctions imposed following its satellite launch in December 2012. While most analysis tends to utilize a cost-benefit approach toward North Korea’s decision to conduct a nuclear test, it is also worth considering the domestic reasons behind the decision based upon the regime’s identity and internal politics. In this respect, the test should not be seen as simply a knee-jerk reaction to international sanctions or even as a desperate effort to get the Obama administration back to the negotiating table. The decision to conduct a nuclear test was likely taken when Kim Jong-un came to power and was simply a matter of timing and domestic circumstances.

It is noticeable that the regime considered a nuclear test following the international condemnation of its failed satellite launch in April 2012. There was evidence that preparations were underway at the Punggye test site; however Pyongyang decided in June 2012 that it would not conduct a test for the time being. From a cost-benefit perspective it is possible to see this as the result of diplomatic efforts by China to persuade North Korea not to carry out a nuclear test. In the end though, Pyongyang did go ahead with its third nuclear test despite Beijing’s opposition, showing that Kim Jong-un is following his own path. In fact, there were domestic issues that worked against a nuclear test being carried out in 2012. Firstly, analysis of satellite images shows that the test site itself was flooded in the summer of 2012 which was only cleared out by the autumn. Secondly, the removal of army chief Vice Marshal Ri Young Ho in July 2012 shows that there were significant internal difficulties for Kim Jong-un to take care of before he could order a nuclear test. Even more significant, Kim Jong-un was only named as Marshal of Korea People’s Army in July after the removal of Ri. This announcement was noticeable because this position was assumed by his father Kim Jong-il in 1992 and signified his formal ruling of North Korea as Kim Il-sung took a backseat. Twenty years later, it again symbolizes Kim Jong-un’s formal ruling of North Korea.

The importance of nuclear weapons for North Korea becomes clear when considering the kind of regime that Kim Jong-un has inherited, one whose national identity conception is “oppositional nationalist.” Jacques Hymans has outlined the way in which the regime can be labeled as “oppositional nationalist” and how this explains Pyongyang’s decision to go nuclear. In his article, Hymans details that the regime has two main national identity characteristics; fear and pride. The fear leads them to seek markers of security, while pride results in markers to establish autonomy and power. Hymans explains that “The bomb is a symbol of the nation’s unlimited potential, of its scientific, technical, and organizational prowess, and also of its tenacity in the face of strong international condemnation. Moreover, not only do fear and pride increase the perceived value of nuclear weapons, they also short-circuit the normal processes of reasoned deliberation that even oppositional nationalist leaders often use to make decisions, and in doing so they propel the leader to act precipitously.”

Given this description of the regime, it is possible to look at North Korea’s decision to conduct its third nuclear test, and arguably of its previous tests, as being based on deep-seated psychological desires rather than as part of negotiating ploy with the United States. That is to say Kim Jong-un has long considered the need to conduct a nuclear test since his ascension to power in December 2011 based on the need to maintain his father’s legacy.

This point is further reinforced when considering that in late May 2012, North Korea amended the preamble of its constitution; the part that outlines the achievements of the state to include nuclear weapon. While this may only be the preamble, it does constitute what the regime regards as its national identity by setting out the official legacy of the past leaders; Kim Il-sung as the founder and Kim Jong-il as the sustainer. Among Kim Jong-il’s legacy are Songun (military-first politics) and the development of nuclear weapons. This was a signal that North Korea would likely conduct a nuclear test in order to display the achievements of Kim Jong-il and the enduring legacy of Songun. Nuclear test in the future will again be used as markers of its security and sovereignty as well as a symbol of the everlasting achievements of Kim Jong-un.


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