Here is the bottom line: The only way that we will have an end to the nuclear and missile programs as well as the human atrocities and crimes against humanity being perpetrated against the Korean people living in the north by the mafia-like crime family cult known as the Kim Family Regime is through a unification process that leads to a united republic of Korea.
That is a tall order. Unification is the only way to settle the “Korea Question.” Unification will be hard and will most likely be achieved after the expenditure of much blood and treasure from the Republic of Korea, the United States and regional powers. It will be complex because the path to attain it is uncertain and fraught with danger.
There are four paths to unification: peaceful, regime collapse, war or internal regime change that results in new leadership that seeks to peacefully unify. Each of these paths conflicts with the single vital national interest of North Korea: survival of the Kim Family Regime. Everything the regime does is focused on this objective. It overrides all other considerations to include the welfare of the Korean people living in the north. It also explains why the North Korean nuclear and missile programs are so important and why the regime will never negotiate them away.
The regime believes in nuclear weapons for two critically important reasons. First, that they deter attack from the South and the U.S. The regime believes that the U.S. will never attack another country with nuclear weapons. It looks to the examples of Iraq and Libya and what happens to a regime that does not have nuclear weapons (and the Libyan example is especially important because Qaddafi gave up his weapons willingly). The second reason is that nuclear weapons support its overall objective of keeping the regime alive. Blackmail diplomacy is simply the use of threats and actual provocations to gain political and economic concessions. A nuclear weapon is the largest threat in its arsenal. This has been a key element of its strategy for nearly seven decades and it has been employed regularly since 1994 with great effect.
Now in 2016 the regime has conducted its fourth nuclear test and a third attempted satellite launch. It has restarted its nuclear reactor and this will allow it to increase its plutonium stockpiles. There is speculation that a fifth nuclear test may occur. The regime follows what it calls the byungjin line—the simultaneous pursuit of nuclear weapons and economic development. The North Korean constitution states that it is a nuclear-armed nation. It should be clear even to the casual observer that the regime has no intention of giving up its nuclear program. The ROK, the U.S. and the international community have attempted a broad range of actions from unreciprocated engagement to hardline policies to the current strategy of ignoring the regime with the unofficial title of “strategic patience.” We have been unable to co-opt or coerce the regime because of its belief that nuclear weapons are key to its survival. At the same time some 25 million Koreans living in the north suffer unbelievable hardships, including many abuses outlined in the United Nations Commission of Inquiry report on human rights in North Korea.
Why does North Korea appear to be accelerating its provocative actions? There are myriad reasons. First, it may simply be necessary to test its weapons and missile delivery systems to advance their programs to the next level. It may be that these tests are focused on internal audiences, both the elite and the general population, to reinforce the North Korean narrative that it is a power to be reckoned with in the international community and that it must defend itself from external aggression. This could be part of Kim Jong-un’s consolidation of power.
Another reason for the recent provocations may be that the regime is trying to establish a “new normal” for its nuclear posture during the next two years as both the U.S. and ROK transition to new administrations in 2017 and 2018. Just as it executed what some call “creeping normalcy” in the 1970’s and 1980’s when it repositioned its conventional military forces, increasing its frontline forces to 70 percent over time, this could be their attempt to conduct a “nuclear creeping normalcy” with the intent to be recognized as a nuclear power when the new administrations come into office.