On Wednesday, North Korea shocked the world by conducting its fourth nuclear test, which drew immediate international condemnation. Pyongyang’s decision may appear perplexing, but it shouldn’t be. The state’s messaging strategy since the test makes the logic plain: This is an important year for the government, science and technology are linchpins of development, and nuclear weapons are an indivisible part of national defense. At the same time, it gives a hint of popular opinion surrounding the country’s nuclear program in some quarters — the ones that matter the most for regime stability over the long term.
Whenever the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea undertakes a provocation, a debate about the intended audience inevitably follows. Is it for domestic or external consumption? If the latter, is it for the United States, South Korea, China, Japan or some combination of those four? States, like humans, have a tendency to imagine themselves at center stage, concluding that the actions of others are directed squarely at them.
From an analytical standpoint, it doesn’t help that there is a kernel of truth to most of the available interpretations. Yes, North Korea would cheerfully force an end to President Barack Obama’s policy of strategic patience, the admission that, given North Korean intransigence since the failed U.S.–North Korea Leap Day agreement of 2012, the U.S. government’s limited reserves of diplomatic time and personnel can be more effectively deployed elsewhere.
And yes, Pyongyang has surely concluded by now that August’s inter-Korean diplomatic dance — set off by a land mine that maimed two South Korean staff sergeants along the demilitarized zone and ended with an agreement signed between the two governments — yielded nothing of substance. Nothing, that is, except perhaps the death of one of North Korea’s erstwhile point men on inter-Korean matters, Kim Yang Gon, who on Dec. 29 was reported as having died in a Pyongyang car accident earlier that month.
And of course, whatever perceived or real slight incited North Korean officials to recall Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s court orchestra from China just hours before it was due to perform there on Dec. 12 may have persuaded him to sign off on final preparations for the test on Dec. 15. In the Chinese and South Korean media, a broad crack that developed Wednesday morning in a school playground in Yanji — a visible result of the nuclear test happening just 60 miles away — quickly came to symbolize the popular but likely baseless notion that Chinese patience with its headstrong ally is finally running out.
Of course, any country cultivating a nuclear weapons program must test its wares with some regularity to ensure that they function and to bring that functionality to the attention of friend and foe alike. For the North Korean government, nuclear weapons are not the bargaining chip they once were. Rather, they are a means of defense against external enemies and plausibly a salable asset.
But internal circumstances in North Korea are more intriguing than all this — and potentially more relevant. The nuclear test takes place as North Korea begins a year that it hopes will be an auspicious one. In May the ruling Korean Workers’ Party will hold its seventh Party Congress, the first one in 26 years. As Kim wrote on the Dec. 15 nuclear test order, 2016 must therefore be a year of “victory and glory.” As he declared, why not start it off with a “stirring boom”?
What comes next is uncertain, but the past offers some basis for prediction. South Korea has already declared that it will resume loudspeaker propaganda broadcasts along the Demilitarized Zone on Jan. 8 — not coincidentally, Kim’s birthday. The United Nations Security Council will in due course pass a resolution criticizing North Korea and facilitating additional sanctions on the country. The U.S. Treasury Department will doubtless follow suit with a fresh round of measures putting pressure on North Korean state lines of credit and transaction facilities.
Meanwhile, North Korea’s annual winter military exercises have been lent the semblance of high stakes. At some point in late February or March, regular U.S.–South Korean military exercises will take place in South Korea, and the North Korean government will easily spin them, as it has before, into the imminent threat of invasion. With the birthdays of Kim Jong Un’s late father, Kim Jong Il, on Feb. 16 and grandfather Kim Il Sung on April 15, by May, much of the country will have been whipped into a nationalist fervor, and we may find it treated to a missile launch to accompany the seventh Party Congress.
All of this will play quite well in some quarters. As has been written elsewhere, North Koreans, especially those in the capital, recognize the right and even the necessity of the country’s drive for nuclear weapons, and plenty of people take pride in their country’s scientific and technical achievements in the face of adversity. A round of interviews with regular citizens broadcast on state television after the nuclear test was clearly scripted — one woman flubbed her lines completely — but the message therein, that the test was a source of pride and delight worthy of any and all material sacrifices that had to be made, certainly resonates.
In the provinces, meanwhile, where food is distributed intermittently or not at all and life for most remains a slog, there is less of a ready market for the regime’s coarse mixture of modernizing rhetoric and jingoistic nationalism. There the government’s strategy of noninterference in market activities is more important than nuclear tests in sustaining tacit support. According to a Daily NK source in South Pyongan province, when the employees in a local factory were ordered to gather for the televised special report announcing the nuclear test, some workers mused that it might bring news of Kim Jong Un’s death instead.
The constituency of Pyongyang residents, ruling Workers’ Party officials and privileged others is the one group that Kim’s government must placate, for they are the ones who facilitate and implement his government’s rule across the board. For now, at least, there is no indication that Kim is losing them.