Nuclear and missile development are indispensable for the North Korean regime to maintain control over the country and its military, former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho has indicated to the Mainichi Shimbun in a recent interview in Seoul.
North Korea justifies its weapons development as defensive nuclear deterrence against hostile U.S. policy and the threat of nuclear attack. In 2017, with the emergence of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, who has hinted at taking military action against North Korea, the country that year conducted its sixth nuclear test, showing off a weapon with the greatest yield among those it has tested so far. It also repeatedly launched intercontinental ballistic missiles in a rush to boost its military prowess.
But Thae cites another reason for the development of these weapons: getting rid of a defeatist mindset among soldiers.
There is a large gap in military capability between North and South Korea. Having experienced robust economic growth, South Korea has significantly modernized its forces. The weapons used by North Korea, on the other hand, are growing old, and rank-and-file soldiers face serious malnutrition.
“Not surprisingly, a defeatist mentality has started to spread among soldiers who are thinking, ‘If we went to war with South Korea, could we really win?’ And so Chairman Kim has waved about missiles and nuclear weapons, providing the confidence to say, ‘We’ve got these so we can win.’ If he didn’t do that, he wouldn’t be able to control the military,” Thae says.
The former diplomat cites another significant issue in Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons and missiles: the idea that they will serve as “collateral” for economic reconstruction.
Shortly after Kim became supreme leader of North Korea, he showed a strong will to proceed with economic reform, and in 2013 and 2014, he decided to establish economic development districts in about 20 locations across the country. But he struggled to utilize these districts. This was due to a lack of confidence the regime would be resistant to wavering even if reforms were implemented.
“When drawing foreign entrepreneurs deep into the country, would the hereditary system be all right? There were no guarantees. So there was a need for Chairman Kim to quickly press ahead with missile and nuclear developments and suggest, ‘If the regime faces any danger, we’ll press the button,'” Thae says.
Thae adds, “The Munitions Industry Department of the Workers Party of Korea is always developing missiles, and reports to Chairman Kim, and if it receives a launch order, it’ll go ahead with it. The leadership of the Workers Party would not be able to participate in this process, let alone the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.”