North Korea watchers haven’t been getting much sleep this year. With all the bluster of late, what does Kim Jong Un want?
“There are a lot of debates about ‘What North Korea wants,’ ” says Sheena Greitens, a fellow in the Center for East Asia Policy Studies and an assistant professor at the University of Missouri. “First, what matters are the interests of the very top leadership, which is narrower than ‘North Korea’ or even ‘the North Korean government.’ Second, North Korea might use a range of strategies … but we should remember that they’re all aimed at the same underlying, fundamental objective: ensuring Kim’s political survival.”
March is always a time of heightened tensions. This is when the U.S. and South Korea stage their annual joint military exercises, involving hundreds of thousands of troops. This year, the North has been especially demonstrative as it lays the groundwork for a major strategy meeting, its first Workers Party Congress since 1980.
The Chinese Communist Party holds these summits every few years to chart strategy, a common practice of communist states. In North Korea, the party congress framework was dropped under Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled from 1994 until his death in 2011. Soon to be revived under his son, the congress is expected to roll out the next phase of Kim’s rule.
“The stakes are always higher in the first few years of a dictator’s time in power, and the first few years are almost always more [internally] violent,” Greitens says. “The rules of the game under the new leader are still being established — both inside the country and externally — so it makes uncertainty higher.”
As the third-generation leader of the family dynasty, Kim needs to establish his own legitimacy, and that means standing up to enemies and advancing the nuclear program.
“I don’t think it’s all scientific tests,” Hanham says. “I think a lot of this is political.”