At the Central Party Committee’s Plenary Session on March 31, 2013, Kim Jong-un announced the new policy line for the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea (DRPK). The Byungjin Line declaration designated nuclear development as the country’s primary initiative for securing defense and promoting economic development. As explained below, the Byungjin Line has important implications for North Korea’s defense policy going forward.
The Kim regime has described the Byungjin Line strategy as one that “reinforces and expands North Korea’s nuclear arsenal against the constant threat of nuclear attack and invasion, while also empowering the country’s efforts toward economic development.” The Byungjin Line aims to fulfill the dreams that Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il worked to achieve. Through this policy, the North Korean regime claims to safeguard the dignity and autonomy of the North Korean people through self-reliance, military first, and socialism.
Kim Jong-un’s goals for the Byungjin Line regarding North Korea’s nuclear program include the establishment of a legal precedence for nuclear weapons and the enshrinement of those weapons in North Korea’s defense policy going forward. These goals also further illuminate the link between North Korea’s economy and its defense ambitions. First, the Byungjin Line aims to consolidate the legal grounds for the presence of nuclear weapons in North Korea and improve both the quality and quantity of the country’s nuclear arsenal. Second, the Korean People’s Army (KPA) is to make nuclear weapons central to its deterrence and warfare strategies and prepare such weapons for use in ordinary combat. The Byungjin Line policy, therefore, can be seen as justifying the North’s possession of nuclear weapons and also as establishing nuclear weapons as a central component of North Korea’s military strategy.
The cornerstone of the North Korean military strategy
Overall, the formal adoption of the Byungjin Line helps explain North Korea’s evolving force structure and weapons strategy. In recent years, North Korea has changed its approach to defense policy, shifting from a focus on conventional forces to a focus on asymmetric capabilities and weapons of mass destruction. This has been primarily explained in two ways, both of which are tied to the underpinnings of the Byungjin Line.
First, having realized the obsolescence of its conventional capabilities, North Korea sought to alleviate its conventional disadvantage by investing heavily in ballistic missiles, nuclear weapons, and other weapons of mass destruction. This idea is further corroborated by the analysis of the 2015 Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Worldwide Threat Assessment, which stated, “Because of deficiencies in their conventional military forces, North Korean leaders are focused on developing missile and WMD capabilities, particularly building nuclear weapons.”
Second, North Korea’s shift to asymmetric weapons development reflects economic concerns. Given that North Korea lacks the resources to modernize its entire military, “it has selectively invested in asymmetric capabilities to mitigate the qualitative advantage of U.S. and ROK forces.” The country’s economic weaknesses also translate to a scarcity in general resources that affects military readiness in several ways.
As per a 2016 Congressional Research Services report, “a lack of fuel prevents pilots from conducting adequate flight training, logistical shortages could also prevent troops from traveling as ordered, and lastly, a lack of spare parts could reduce the availability of equipment, and food shortages will likely reduce the endurance of North Korean forces in combat, among other effects.”
Additionally, the asymmetric emphasis of the Byungjin Line highlights Pyongyang’s overall need to reduce the financial burden of maintaining conventional weapons and strategies, and to instead channel those freed financial resources back into its national economy. The Byungjin Line, then, goes deeper than a simple reallocation of the national budget. According to the Kim regime, “it expresses North Korea’s hope to secure peace through nuclear deterrence, so that it may streamline, normalize, and rationalize its economic management and planning.” In other words, securing a fully developed nuclear weapons arsenal, especially nuclear ICBMs, will result in a legitimate deterrent ability which will maintain peace, and therefore, economic prosperity.
By marrying its nuclear program to its economy in this way, Kim Jong-un has solidified the importance of nuclear development to the future well-being of his country. Since the Byungjin Line declaration in 2013, North Korea has mounted a momentous nuclear and ballistic missile development plan, conducting more and more powerful nuclear tests and continually launching stronger and more far-ranging ballistic missiles. As a result of these developments, hopes for peninsular disarmament remain bleak.
Kim Jong Un, absolute leader of the DPRK
In light of the failure of soft tactics and deterrence in preventing North Korean proliferation, and given the serious risks posed by preventive military action, it is likely that the U.S. will have to accept a nuclear-armed North Korea. Going forward the U.S. will have to rely on deterrence to prevent North Korea’s use of nuclear weapons. For deterrence to work, the U.S. must be clear and consistent in its coercive tactics.
While it is unlikely that Kim Jong-un, once in full possession of nuclear ICBMs, will use them hastily, it is reasonable to assume he may be emboldened to act provocatively in the region. The U.S. must be prepared and willing to act in defense of its allies, and must communicate this clearly to Pyongyang. Such an approach demands a high level of commitment to U.S. allies, but honoring alliance commitments, while costly now, would prevent a nuclear arms race among U.S. allies in the region.
Moreover, the U.S. should continue to put pressure on North Korea through sanctions. However, for the sanctions to be effective, China must be brought into the fold and persuaded to fully cooperate. China has significant economic leverage over North Korea, and the U.S. needs China’s support to curtail North Korean ambitions. A soft power approach would entail providing economic incentives to China or offering to re-posture U.S. forces in the region. A hard power approach might include broadening and strengthening U.S. sanctions on Chinese officials and entities colluding with North Korea.
Lastly, the U.S. must continue attempts at diplomatic communications with North Korea and be prepared to outdo all previous efforts to bring the Kim regime to the table. While prospects for a diplomatic solution are not good, such efforts should not be viewed as futile. Dialogue and negotiations will also be perceived positively by the international community. The U.S. remains in a position of global primacy, but it must realize it cannot solve this issue through unilateral action alone. The U.S. should consult other world leaders on North Korea and continue to project U.S. diplomatic influence abroad to recruit international support.
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Michael Letkewicz is an M.A. candidate in the Security Policy Studies program at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.