im Jong-un’s ambitious vow to preemptively use North Korea’s nuclear weapons to defend its “fundamental interests” has understandably drawn much attention in both Washington and Seoul. Experts have warned of a change in Pyongyang’s nuclear strategy, suggesting such a development to have significant implications for regional stability. However, some of these analyses have failed to provide meaningful policy alternatives due to being based on a theoretically and practically weak foundation.
Pessimists, for example, warn that North Korea is “working on a program which will one day make conquest possible—conquest of the South.” There is always a positive probability greater than zero that this will occur, although such a scenario is unlikely to happen as long as the U.S.-Republic of Korea (ROK) military alliance serves to deter North Korea’s provocations. Indeed, any North Korean invasion would trigger devastating joint retaliation on the part of the alliance, especially given the substantial U.S. civilian and military presence in South Korea.
Optimists, however, claim that North Korea just focuses on protecting itself from America, and thus, the United States should facilitate cooperation with North Korea. Yet, such an analysis overlooks the fact that Pyongyang must maintain a hostile external environment to justify the regime’s rule. Thus, as Kim stated in his speech, North Korea will likely pursue a strategy that leverages its nuclear capabilities to achieve its political objectives.
The reason why the above analyses fail to provide substantial insights lies in the fact that they do not convincingly explain the substance of North Korea’s national interests—which Kim has said he would use nuclear force to defend. Therefore, understanding North Korea’s core national interests is critical when it comes to predicting how its nuclear strategy will evolve.
In practical terms, North Korea is a revolutionary state whose very existence is based on achieving revolutionary national goals. In North Korea, the Workers’ Party of Korea leads the national revolution. As a consequence, the Workers’ Party exists above the state, with its bylaw serving as the supreme state document in North Korea, not the state constitution.