North Korea sometimes seems less of a place than an idea or an absurdist fantasy. The latest New Yorker depicts Kim Jong Un on its cover as a child playing with toy missiles. What other world leader gets this treatment? What other country is so alien, so downright weird, that it celebrates the anniversary of its independence by creating its own time zone? What other country could prompt U.S. intelligence officials to seriously speculate that a nuclear test was retaliation for disrespecting a state-run all-female pop group? What other country has a state-run all-female pop group?
The North Koreans don’t think they are absurd. The country continually touts its scientific, technological and industrial developments to show that it is a modern, dynamic world power. Nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles have a starring role in this narrative. “The spectacular success made by the DPRK in the H-bomb test this time is a great deed of history, a historic event of the national significance as it surely guarantees the eternal future of the nation,” the Korean Central News Agency stated this past week, trying a bit too hard. North Korea is threatening our security, sure, but it really wants to threaten our notion of where it fits in the world — or, rather, our notion that it does not.
It wasn’t that long ago that North Korea merely aspired to the nuclear club. When the Soviet Union collapsed, North Korea was left in a bad way. It seemed plausible, back then, that the North might bargain away its nascent nuclear program in exchange for an end to international isolation and assistance from the outside. Unlike, for example, the recent nuclear deal reached with Iran, the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea explicitly exchanged nuclear capabilities for better relations with the United States. North Korea wanted to be seen as normal and for the Kims to be treated as legitimate world leaders. And the United States was happy to pat the Kims on the head for a while, presuming that their regime would collapse sooner rather than later.
Yet here we are, 20 years later. The Kims have held on, even while much of their country has starved. After the Agreed Framework collapsed in 2003, North Korea was left to develop its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. North Korea’s leader, a grandson of founder Kim Il Sung, welcomed 2016 “with the thrilling explosion of our first hydrogen bomb.”
While the explosion Wednesday was too small to be caused by what we normally think of as a thermonuclear weapon — a two-staged device with megatons of nuclear yield — the more likely possibilities are not comforting. What North Korea probably did was test a “boosted” device that uses a gas of deuterium and tritium, two hydrogen isotopes. This is an essential technology for reducing the size and weight of nuclear weapons. If North Korea is going to fit nuclear warheads on the long-range missiles it has paraded through Pyongyang, boosting is a significant step.
Would North Korea still trade away its nuclear technology for legitimacy? From time to time, it’s looked like Pyongyang might be open to making concessions and cutting another deal. When North Korea kidnapped two American journalists in 2009, it was willing to release them in exchange for a meeting with former president Bill Clinton. It is bizarre to use a kidnapping to force a high-level meeting for the sake of appearing normal, but that’s North Korea for you.
Not long after that, however, North Korea released a film that turns the Clinton story on its head. It is called “The Country I Saw,” and the title is instructive: This is a (terrible) movie dramatizing how North Koreans want others to see them. Like any good piece of propaganda, it has long scenes dedicated to didactic dialogue in which characters explain the message in the most painfully earnest way. The movie ends with Clinton visiting North Korea — this time to pay tribute to the country’s leaders, who have humiliated the United States and Japan by conducting successful tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons . A country that produces that sort of storyline doesn’t seem like a country ready to bargain away its nuclear weapons.
Indeed, North Korea’s announcement of a hydrogen bomb seems to rule out disarmament except under conditions that might as well include gracing Kim’s ample posterior with a gentle peck. The North Koreans also have denigrated the nuclear deal with Iran and ascribed the fall of Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi to his disarmament agreement with the United States. It seems inconceivable now that this North Korean government would abandon the nuclear weapons programs it has developed at such a great cost.
It is understandable that we would want to deny the North Korean regime any legitimacy. It is an ugly government that does ugly things to its own people and its neighbors.
Yet we should be honest with ourselves about what our revulsion entails. We are refusing to deal with the North Koreans — whether we justify it, as President George W. Bush did, by comparing them to children who throw their food on the floor or whether we hide behind meaningless policy catchphrases, like the Obama administration’s “strategic patience.” We are forgoing any meaningful opportunity to slow or constrain their nuclear development. We are not making any effort to open their appalling system; in fact, we are helping close it off.
Perhaps one day we’ll stop laughing and notice that a brutal, nuclear-armed North Korea that terrorizes its citizens and its neighbors isn’t all that funny. They’d like that.
Jeffrey Lewis is the director of the East Asia nonproliferation program at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies.