In Their Own Words: North Korea’s Changing Motives in Nuclear Testing

North Korea conducted three nuclear tests between 2006 and 2013, but this rate has intensified to three tests in the past two years alone. This threat of unchecked nuclear escalation has led to an all-time low in U.S.–North Korea relations and turned East Asia into a potential flashpoint. North Korea’s motives for nuclear development are shrouded in secrecy, and thus have traditionally been studied through deductive reasoning. The armament theory assumes that North Korea is modernizing its nuclear arsenal for security and deterrence purposes. The bargaining theory presumes that North Korea is leveraging its nuclear capabilities as a bargaining chip to elicit concessions from the U.S. in negotiations.

Complementing these theories, Taehee Whang, Michael Lammbrau, and Hyungmin Joo adopted an inductive approach to understand North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Each day, the North Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) publishes English- and Korean-language online news articles on critical national issues. Since North Korea has used these sources to clarify its positions prior to nuclear tests, the authors developed a text classification model using supervised machine learning (SML) to analyze KCNA articles from 1997 to 2013. The SML model identified the frequency of certain terms in KCNA articles within seven days before North Korean nuclear tests, and compared it with the frequency of the terms in KCNA articles two months before and two months after nuclear tests. From this comparison, the authors found that the use of certain terms in KCNA articles increased significantly when nuclear tests were imminent.

For the Kim Jong-il period (1997–2011), the SML analysis identified six terms frequently appearing in KCNA articles within seven days prior to nuclear tests: “suppression,” “down with imperialism (DWI),” “delegation,” “foreign,” “greeting,” and “cooperative.” The authors determined that North Korea used most of these terms immediately before nuclear tests to strategically associate itself with sympathetic international audiences. For example, references to the phrase “down with imperialism (DWI)” were deployed to legitimize nuclear modernization by inferring that North Korea was opposing imperialism (presumably American imperialism), just as Kim Il-sung opposed Japan as a teenager. Using the words “delegation,” “foreign,” “greetings,” and “cooperative,” North Korea attempted to reaffirm its relationships with sympathetic countries, such as China and Russia, and forestalled—or at least appeased—an international outcry over potential nuclear tests.

During the Kim Jong-un period (2012–2013), the SML analysis identified four words that appeared most frequently in KCNA articles within seven days before the third nuclear test: “star,” “satellite,” “respected,” and “service.” (The authors used texts from 1997 to 2013, which did not reflect the fourth, fifth, and sixth nuclear tests under the Kim Jong-un regime in January 2016, September 2016, and September 2017, respectively.) Careful textual analysis confirmed that Kim Jong-un focused on the domestic reaction as he prepared for the third nuclear test. For example, the word “star” euphemistically referred to the late Kim Jong-il (“the shining star”). The word “satellite” was employed to elicit domestic patriotism by emphasizing the imminent nuclear test as Kim Jong-un’s brilliant feat. In addition, the frequent use of the term “service” was used to describe and shore up loyalty to Kim Jong-un in the Korean People’s Army, which has been the military unit most instrumental in ensuring his succession and the continuation of his regime.

The critical finding that Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un targeted messages to different audiences prior to nuclear testing indicated that their underlying motivations behind nuclear provocations were inherently different. Whereas Kim Jong-il had two decades to strengthen domestic support before succeeding Kim Il-sung, his son, Kim Jong-un, did not have enough time for a smooth transition of power. The authors, therefore, concluded that Kim Jong-il’s strong domestic control allowed him greater room to focus on international reactions to the first two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009, whereas Kim Jong-un’s weaker domestic support motivated him to focus on the domestic reaction during the third nuclear test in 2013.

The models used in this study were not meant to categorically predict future North Korean nuclear tests and policy in general because the terms appearing in North Korean official media outlets were not intentionally chosen to signal impending nuclear events. Nevertheless, there appeared to be patterns in North Korea’s war of words, and more importantly, considering frequently used terms could have special significance in the current phase of the North Korean nuclear crisis.

Article source: Whang, Taehee, Michael Lammbrau, and Hyung-min Joo. “Talking to Whom? The Changing Audience of North Korean Nuclear Tests.Social Science Quarterly 98(3). (2017): 976-992.

Featured photo: cc/(Mattis Kaminer, photo ID: 854121108, from iStock by Getty Images)

Changwook Ju
Changwook Ju (MPP’18) is a staff writer for International Affairs at the Chicago Policy Review. He is interested in alliance politics, the causes of war, crisis bargaining, domestic politics and foreign policy, non-democracy, nuclear strategy, and the political economy of conflict. He spent two years in the Republic of Korea Marine Corps as a sergeant, and holds dual undergraduate degrees in Public Policy and Political Science from Sungkyunkwan University in Seoul, South Korea.

Comments are closed.