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North Korea’s Military Strategy, 2018
Author: Chun In-bum
Published August 3, 2018
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As the focus shifted from North Korea’s military advances in 2017 to its diplomatic offensive in 2018, we should not lose sight of the strategic thinking behind gaining the maximum time to develop the capacity to extend its military threat. At present North Korea needs time to perfect its nuclear strike capability. It has been very successful in developing missile capabilities, but it needs additional time to achieve its goals. Starting with high-level North-South talks on March 5, 2018, the DPRK has just gained what it needs most: time. Whenever the first talks begin with the United States and the DPRK, there should be no surprise if the DPRK comes with an improved capability to threaten the alliance. Thus, for an extended period in 2018, as diplomacy proceeds, we should expect a subdued North Korean approach: not flaunting its nuclear weapons and missiles, while striving to boost capabilities for the struggle ahead.

In the seven years since Kim Jong-un officially inherited the leadership of the DPRK, his stated policy has been byungjin ( 병진, 竝進), the pursuit of both economic and military development. In conjunction with purges and efforts to eliminate rivals, byungjin may, in part, derive from Kim’s efforts at the outset of his tenure to consolidate political power. Through it, Kim displayed moderate economic flexibility, thereby gaining favor with the North Korean people through facilitating an improvement in living standards. It is tempting to see byungjin as a sign of the regime’s weakness, or as an indication of moderation, either of which would prompt the eventual collapse of the Kim regime. Correspondingly, one might see it as a reflection of Kim’s immaturity, inexperience, and lack of political and strategic acumen. These viewpoints reflect mirror imaging more than a sophisticated understanding of North Korea. Byungjin may be more of a political device and a strategic communications element of a grand strategy, as opposed to the regime’s strategy. It may be a significant instrument in the regime’s effort to maintain elite cohesion and focus the energies of the North Korean people toward productive pursuits that likewise add to the regime’s legitimacy and staying power. It by no means suggests any diminishing of the priority of making advances in nuclear and missile development in order to pose a more serious threat.

Since taking power, Kim’s regime has fired close to one hundred missiles of wide variety and range compared to thirty-one for his father and grandfather combined. He has also conducted four nuclear tests, boasting of a thermal nuclear capability. During his 2018 New Year’s address, Kim Jong-un proclaimed that the DPRK had perfected its nuclear and intercontinental missile capabilities, supporting North Korea’s constitutional claim to be a nuclear power. Despite an upsurge in diplomacy after this address, we should keep our eyes on its military advances.

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