North Korea experts say that Pyongyang will likely try to use the tension between the U.S. and Iran to justify a strengthening of its nuclear deterrence, in the wake of the U.S. drone-strike-assassination of Iranian military leader Qasem Soleimani.
Two days after the drone strike, North Korea condemned the attack through state-run media.
Thae Yong-ho, the former deputy ambassador of North Korea to the United Kingdom who famously defected with his family to South Korea in 2016, wrote on his personal website that Pyongyang is worried that word of the drone attack will spread among its people.
Thae also criticized North Korea for what he said was a distortion of facts, saying the North had claimed “the Middle East will be a grave for the U.S.” and that “pro-U.S. countries are putting the U.S. in a tough situation by remaining passive as Washington asks them to send troops.”
He also said that Kim Jong Un, was greatly surprised by the attack and the assassination in Iraq might now cement his convictions that only nuclear weapons will protect him.
Cho Hanbum of the Korea Institute for National Unification told RFA’s Korean Service the assassination actually puts North Korea in a hard place.
Cho said that in the wake of the drone assassination, which has been widely seen as a preemptive strike, if North Korea starts its usual provocations, the U.S. will now have no choice but to take a hardline stance, and even North Korea’s allies, China and Russia, will not be able to side with Pyongyang.
Cho believes North Korea will instead focus on gaining an upper hand in denuclearization and sanctions relief negotiations with the U.S. rather than threatening provocations.
But Cho’s colleague Hong Min, the director of the institute’s North Korea Research Division, said that the North could instead use the drone-strike as an excuse to launch provocations.
Hong said that North Korea has declared a long-term war with U.S. under a so-called “frontal breakthrough” strategy, but it has not abandoned negotiations. He added that the U.S. would be displeased to see Pyongyang disrupt those negotiations.
“North Korea may hope internally that the US will quickly organize its internal issues and focus on negotiations with the North,” said Hong, adding “[but] due to the Iranian situation [that will likely] be put on the back burner.”
“So, North Korea may increase its level of provocation early so that the U.S. must focus on negotiations,” said Hong.
Hong added that if not for the drone-attack, North Korea would begin low-intensity provocations in late February or early March, when the annual U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises are in full swing.
However, Hong said, now it is possible that North Korea could try to draw U.S. attention by unveiling its strategic weapons at an earlier date.
U.S.-based experts weigh in
Several U.S.-based experts also told RFA that the drone-strike would embolden North Korea’s resolve to hold on to its nuclear program.
“The U.S. action reinforces North Korea’s decades-old paranoia about Washington’s intentions for Pyongyang and bolsters the regime’s narrative of a ‘hostile’ United States,” said Jung H. Pak, from the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies.
“The killing of Iran’s top general does not fundamentally affect the [North Korean] regime’s strategic objectives or its methods, and if anything, further legitimizes Kim’s decision to refuse to ‘bargain’ away the nuclear weapons,” said Pak.
Patrick Cronin of the Hudson Institute said the drone-attack affects North Korea in two major ways.
“On the one hand, Pyongyang is reminded that it is vulnerable and should refrain from lethal uses of force,” said Cronin.
“On the other hand, North Korea will continue to build up its nuclear arsenal to deter potential regime-change attacks,” he said.
Government encourages citizens’ self-reliance to overcome sanctions
Meanwhile in North Korea, authorities are forcing citizens to attend ideological education sessions where they are told to bear the difficulties of living under international sanctions using self-reliance.
The sessions began after the Korean Workers’ Party held a plenary meeting to decide the best way to deal with the sanctions, which are aimed at depriving North Korea of foreign cash and resources that could be funneled into its nuclear program.
“These days, they are conducting these ideological sessions at every factory and women’s organization,” said a resident of North Pyongan in an interview with RFA’s Korean Service Sunday.
“The core idea of the party’s plenary meeting was that people should persevere through economic sanctions with the power of self-reliance,” said the source.
But the source said the people are scoffing at the idea.
“[They say] if they just sit there and believe what the Central Committee is saying, they might starve to death, so they have to save dollars on their own,” the source said.
“They say they don’t believe in Kim Jong Un. They believe in hundred dollar bills, so they are saying that if they have dollars, they can overcome any hardship,” the source said.
Another source, also from North Pyongan, told RFA, “There is a saying circulating among residents that ‘even a Kisaeng must work the farmland with her hoe’.”
Kisaeng were women trained to be courtesans for upper-class men during the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897) and earlier. The saying means the economic situation is so bad that even those who cater to the wealthy struggle to survive.
The second source explained the saying in the current context, saying, “If government officials or rich people don’t make enough money because of sanctions, women who live off of them will have to work hard and suffer a lot.”
The second source said that the education sessions indicate to the people that sanctions will not likely be ending soon.
“The more that this type of ideological education is emphasized, the more people realize that the confrontation between North Korea and the U.S. will be prolonged, and the U.N. economic sanctions will not be easily lifted,” said the second source.
“If we give up nuclear weapons and missiles, foreign economic aid, including from South Korea, will begin on a large scale, so there is a lot of resentment and criticism about how the party is handling the situation.”
Reported by Seungwook Hong, Hyemin Son and Sangmin Lee for RFA’s Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.