How North Korean missiles are helping to mask Kim Jong-un’s fears
Elizabeth Shim says massive military parades and the dogged pursuit of an unverifiable nuclear arsenal are just defensive propaganda from a regime nursing defeats in soft power and digital influence
When North Korea staged its massive military parade on April 15 to mark the 105th anniversary of the birth of founder Kim Il-sung, the spectacle was broadcast on state television network KCTV, so ordinary North Koreans could tune in and see for themselves the military might of the Kim Jong-un regime.
In the days that followed, analysts warned of rapid advancements being made in Pyongyang’s weapons programme, and explained why the display of at least two new missile systems signify progress. Very few people, however, have made it a point to tie what former Los Alamos National Laboratory director Siegfried Hecker has called North Korea’s “menacing arsenal” to momentous domestic changes in the country.
Watch: Spectacular military parade marks founder’s birthday in Pyongyang
Not many see the connection between weapons and the North’s policy of adaptive propaganda.
North Korea claims to produce weapons for defence purposes but, beneath the display of force, the regime is hiding deeply entrenched vulnerabilities under a torrent of simulations.
Beneath the façade of a revived “our-style socialism” visible in its showcase capital, and perhaps even under the veneer of abject poverty, market forces have been at play, supplying the population not only with daily necessities, but also with pirated media that provides a secret window to the outside world.
Much more than a bar of soap or pack of instant noodles in the country’s grey markets, moving images are allowing North Koreans to forge a relation with advanced capitalist societies like South Korea.
This is good news, but it has prompted North Korea to wage an unending propaganda war against its people to reinforce its own sovereignty, even as it is unable to provide an acceptable level of food rations or supply a living wage at many state-owned enterprises.
There is now evidence young North Koreans keep up with the latest trends in the South or watch Hollywood movies delivered to them on flash drives. Many defectors have had some exposure to illegal South Korean media, and the films sometimes motivate them to leave, because the representation is credible enough in a world where reality and images are increasingly exchanging masks.
From time to time, North Korea has claimed it is ready to turn Seoul into a pile of ashes, or to rain nuclear hail on the United States and emerge as the victor in a catastrophic war. While North Korea’s capacity to miniaturise a nuclear warhead and mount it on an intercontinental ballistic missile is subject to debate, the continued arrival of defectors to the South makes it clear that the regime has been handed a resounding defeat in the arenas of soft power and digital influence.
In a technology-mediated virtual space, North Korea even briefly competed with the visual spectacle of young South Korean singers in the digital sphere. Kim, for example, tried to adapt to the changes by commissioning the Moranbong Band in 2012, but the ensemble of young women sporting trendy haircuts and short skirts, while playing upbeat music on electric violins, may never have been a match for secretly influential K-pop groups like Girls’ Generation – at the peak of their popularity in Asia at the time.
Watch: Moranbong Band presents “My country is the best”
In retaliation for loss of control, North Korea has continued to deliver up its most effective forms of propaganda: verbal threats and footage of its more successful missile launches. The North may have tinkered with soft power, but ultimately decided the best way to engage its citizens – and the world – was to stay ahead of the curve with the phantasmagoria of total war, a move which has been met with sanctions and increased tensions, and helped to justify the claims of external threats to its people who continue to sacrifice themselves.
Some analysts say Kim is genuinely terrified of an invasion because of past US actions in countries like Iraq and Libya, and that the deployment of strategic assets like aircraft carriers to the peninsula has not helped to allay those fears. However, North Korea has, in fact, been offered multiple security assurances across several US administrations: take the 2005 joint statement reached during six-party talks, or the “Leap Day Deal” signed during president Barack Obama’s term.
It is also worth noting how public North Korea has become with its weapons announcements in the decades following the famine of the 1990s. Hecker, a US scientist who has visited North Korea seven times since 2004, told me last week during a phone press conference that the regime never shared anything with its public about building a bomb before 2003.
The previous year, Kim Jong-il was struggling with unofficial markets and the information flows bypassing and overwhelming the state. A solution had to be found, and North Korea probably turned to touting its weapons programme to artificially revive an enemy and mask inherent limits to state power, which includes an inability to use nuclear bombs against countries like the United States, because that would mean the end of the regime.
There is no doubt that North Korea knows how to produce fissile material and would launch some form of attack if provoked. But with the higher frequency of missile tests and subsequent failures, we have learned they have yet to perfect the technology. And unless they open their nuclear reactors to outside inspectors, analysts will never know with certainty the exact number of nuclear bombs in Pyongyang’s arsenal.
It is in this absence of confirmed knowledge that North Korea’s simulation of its weapons programme – built on injections of truth – fills in the missing gaps of information by outrunning a hazy and unverifiable reality, while concealing the fact that the power Kim craves is slipping away.
It has been said US President Donald Trump has no good options on North Korea. The same, however, could be said of the North Korean leader, even as we find ourselves being lured into a system of images of missiles and military parades that have superseded the reality on the ground.
Elizabeth Shim is a journalist and a member of the US-Korea NextGen Scholars Programme, an initiative of the Centre for Strategic and International Studies Korea Chair in Washington and the University of Southern California’s Korean Studies Institute