As the latest and worst North Korea crisis in six decades continues to rage, the need to think outside the box grows more urgent. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the global community appear trapped in a vicious circle, like a malign chicken and egg. After 11 years and eight major UN resolutions, this cycle is wearily familiar. North Korea tests a ballistic missile (BM) or a nuclear device. The UN Security Council (UNSC) condemns and sanctions this, with a unanimity behind which lies hard bargaining between the US and China over precise wording and measures. Pyongyang angrily rejects that, and I do mean angrily. The latest outburst  on September 13 from the singularly ill-named Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee rants and raves against the “Yankees” (wolves, gangsters); the wicked “Japs” whose country “should be sunken into the sea by the nuclear bomb of Juche. Japan is no longer needed to exist near us”; the south (always lower-case, to delegitimize) Koreans, “traitors and dogs”; the UNSC itself, a “tool of evil”; and so on. Now that President Trump has used the UN General Assembly as a forum to threaten to “totally destroy North Korea”, no doubt Kim Jong-un will soon riposte with yet more missile tests. Where might he aim next? We are on a perilous downward spiral.
In previous crises on the peninsula, my advice echoed a World War II official slogan, which in the UK has become rather a T-shirt cliché: “Keep Calm And Carry On”. Past bouts of tension, for instance in August 2015 between the two Koreas , had strong elements of shadow-boxing. This time, however, I feel less able to sound reassuring, on two counts. One is the sheer pace and success of the DPRK’s Weapons of Mass Distruction (WMD) tests, which Kim Jong Un in the past two years has greatly accelerated compared to the more leisurely and fitful pattern of his father Kim Jong Il’s era.
The other factor is regime change, to coin a phrase. Kim Jong Un is not his father, and Donald Trump is unlike his predecessors. This difference in turn has two aspects. The one that gets all the attention is character, which indeed matters. Both men appear mercurial, narcissistic and ill-equipped  for the grave responsibilities they now bear. But temperament aside, each is also embedded in his own political system. When Trump tweets, as he does dismayingly often, he is appealing to his conservative base. Dissing Kim Jong Un as “rocket man” goes down a treat in middle America – regardless of what this may achieve, or fail to achieve, in Pyongyang.
And Kim? In the debate over the Young Marshal’s motives for his big WMD push – is it self-defence, or blackmail, or to be paid to stop, or to get even with South Korea, or some mix of all of these? – the domestic political dimension has been underestimated. For the DPRK does have politics, albeit of a peculiar style, as I argued in an earlier ISPI dossier . The tendency to dehistoricize and essentialize North Korea as a never-changing pest may blind us to internal developments and processes: hard to observe directly, yet not too difficult to discern.
On that basis, when the DPRK began 2016 with a bang – a nuclear test in January, and then a satellite launch (that figleaf for BM tests seems now to have been dropped) in February – this hardly seemed surprising. As such tests came about every two years – the pace has quickened since, of course – that double whammy was right on cue. Moreover, such fireworks – to nod to yet another motive – were especially predictable, nay all but foreordained, in the run-up to 2016’s then forthcoming big event: the DPRK’s first full Party Congress in 37 years, a major challenge and accomplishment for the young Kim Jong-un, which passed off without a hitch.
Writing  in early 2016 for the International Institute for Security Studies (IISS)’s annual Asia-Pacific Regional Security Assessment, published in early June at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore (where I also gave a panel presentation), I argued that “in a system which demands fidelity, the latest Kim – young, untested, vulnerable – had no choice but to present himself as the loyal heir carrying on his father and grandfather’s legacy. That meant taking forward the nuclear and satellite programmes”. Kim Jong Un was in no position to disarm, even were he so minded (as he clearly is not). Over and above their purposes abroad, at home WMD were and are a powerful political tool for Kim: making the populace proud, while showing the Korean People’s Army (KPA) generals whom he has been busy taming that he is no pushover – for the US, or for them.
In the same chapter I also queried “whether a leader busy taming the KPA with an unrelenting series of purges of its top brass – the effect on morale can be imagined – seriously expects it to fight a war at this point”. That churn at the top of the military has since eased; and perhaps morale matters less in a WMD-based conflict than in traditional warfare. Still, the acceleration of the ballistic missile programme, whatever its aims abroad, at home further boosts Kim and cements his image as a valiant and dynamic leader.
Is it just an image? The influential defector Jang Jin Sung claims that Kim Jong Un is a mere figurehead, with the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD) of the Workers’ Party holding real power . Yet along with other evidence (notably a photograph of Hwang Pyong-so, the OGD’s leading light, kneeling before Kim Jong Un ), the accelerated WMD testing and ramping up of tension surely suggests that a young hothead is indeed at the helm.
Hazel Smith argues similarly  that in North Korea “state power today lies with a number of key individuals … engaged in savage intra-elite political competition”, including killing rivals and their families. Strikingly, she claims that for DPRK elites “internal enemies … must seem much more imminently threatening than the long-anticipated intervention from abroad”. But if internecine struggle is really so fierce, how does North Korea still present such a seemingly unified front to the world, with no cracks visible? If this were so, we would surely see it.
Much about DPRK politics inevitably remains opaque, with further research needed; though that is very challenging. All I am suggesting is that among the several drivers of Kim Jong Un’s nuclear and missile programmes, it is plausible that domestic political considerations played some part. Even as the international dimension looms largest, we should not neglect the home front, which adds its own impetus.
Aidan Foster-Carter, Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea, University of Leeds
 “KAPPC Spokesman on DPRK Stand toward UNSC ‘Sanctions Resolution’”, https://kcnawatch.co/newstream/1505345461-35556086/kappc-spokesman-on-dprk-stand-toward-unsc-sanctions-resolution
 For a detailed account of this fascinating yet already half-forgotten episode, see my “South Korea-North Korea Relations: From Snakes to Ladders?” Comparative Connections, Vol. 17, No. 2, September 2015, pp. 87-100, http://cc.csis.org/2015/09/from-snakes-to-ladders
 An excellent recent long report from Pyongyang for the New Yorker notes that between them Trump and Kim have under seven years’ experience of holding public office – and most of that is Kim’s. Evan Osnos, “The Risk of Nuclear War with North Korea”, New Yorker, 18 September 2017, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/09/18/the-risk-of-nuclear-war-with-north-korea
 Control and conceal: How Pyongyang conducts politics, 6 May 2016, https://www.ispionline.it/en/pubblicazione/control-and-conceal-how-pyongyang-conducts-politics-15080