North Korea's Military Strategy

By Hodge, Homer T. | Parameters, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

North Korea's Military Strategy

Hodge, Homer T., Parameters

Simply put, military strategies derive from national strategies intended to achieve goals and conditions that satisfy national interests. Military strategies reflect capabilities vis-a-vis potential opponents, resource constraints, and desired end states. North Korea is no different; its military strategy is a reflection of Pyongyang's national goals. Military strategies also reflect what one might call "cultural rules of engagement"; i.e., they are based on the socially constructed views unique to the nation. (1)

Pyongyang's Foremost National Goal

Historically, Pyongyang's foremost goal has been the reunification of the Korean Peninsula on North Korean terms. The regime's constitution describes reunification as "the supreme national task," (2) and it remains a consistently pervasive theme in North Korean media. However, despite what the North Koreans have continued to tell us for the past five decades, outside observers and specialists differ greatly over exactly what North Korea's goals really are.

Since at least the mid-1990s, there has been a widespread view among Korea observers that, because of severe economic decline, food shortages, and related problems, regime survival has replaced reunification as Pyongyang's most pressing objective. (3) Further, these observers argue, despite its rhetoric, North Korea realizes that reunification through conquest of South Korea is no longer possible. (4) There are also some who argue that the North Korean leadership has recognized the need to initiate substantial change in order to survive in the international community and is embarking on economic reform, reconciliation with South Korea, and reduction of military tensions. In addition to the goals of regime survival, reform, and reconciliation, there is another explanatory view of North Korea's foremost national goal that has been held by a minority of observers for several decades (and has been a consistent theme of North Korean media)--defense against foreign invasion by "imperialist aggressors and their lac key running dogs." (5) Adherents of this view believe that the North Korean leadership genuinely fears an attack by the United States and South Korea and maintains a strong military purely for defense. (6) President Bush's reference to the "axis of evil" in his January 2002 State of the Union address, announcement of plans to adopt a "pre-emptive" military strategy, and increasing numbers of statements by Administration officials about US intentions to employ military force to remove Iraq's Saddam Hussein from power have added support to the "defense" explanation. Some have also argued that enhancement of the military by Kim Jong II (7) serves primarily to strengthen his domestic political power base. While there is an obvious element of truth in this proposition, it is an oversimplification that distorts the true role of military strength in the regime.

Others accept North Korea's word that reunification remains the primary goal and argue that Pyongyang's long-term strategy to dominate the peninsula by any means has not changed. They cite North Korea's continued focus of scarce resources to the military, (8) development of longer-range ballistic missiles, and the recent revelation by Pyongyang that it seeks a nuclear weapons capability9 as indications that reunification remains the foremost goal.

The preponderance of evidence clearly supports the conclusion that reunification under the leadership of Kim Jong II, by whatever means, remains "the supreme national task." North Korean media rhetoric continues to extol reunification under Kim. A parallel but closely related theme is that of completing the socialist revolution. When North Korean leaders speak of achieving "socialist revolution in our country," they mean unification of the entire peninsula on their terms. (10) The Kim regime in North Korea considers the entire peninsula as constituting its sovereign territory. It does not recognize South Korea as being a separate nation, nor the government of South Korea as legitimate. …

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