Some time ago, I took a seminar class on Island Disputes in Northeast Asia. Our professor, for all of her expertise in objective instruction on the issues in question, stressed to us one subtle but critical point in forming our arguments: avoid pronouns, where possible.
Simply put, she wanted us to always remember the entity to which we were referring to. In discussion of real world problems, pronouns are not proper agents – people are. People have names, backgrounds, rationale, and thought processes just like you and me – pronouns do not and, when we use pronouns, we often forget about those backgrounds, rationales, and thought processes that define the people behind the pronouns. This is okay when the entity to which the pronoun refers is not very important – perhaps secondary to another part of the argument. However, in the case of North Korea, as I aim to show in part here, not only is it critical to identify specific players (I.e., not use pronouns), but the identification of said players can help create clearer, more reasonable understandings on certain issues.
This is the second article in a series in which I reexamine common words or phrases in North Korean dialog with the goal of improving the understanding of and critical thinking on said words or phrases. Today’s topic is the seemingly inevitable use of nuclear weapons by (insert pronoun here).
Nuclear security is doubtless one of the more serious topics discussed in North Korea dialog – and it is for this exact reason that I have chosen it to be the example for this article. Let us start by addressing the pronoun problem. Who determines when and how North Korea will deploy nuclear weapons? Surely, we have all seen, heard, or perhaps even used the phrase “They will use Nuclear Weapons” before, but how often have we actually stopped and pondered who “they” actually refers to? Does it refer to the government? The Supreme People’s Assembly? The Worker’s Party? The military? In truth, and unsurprisingly, it comes down to one person.
According to research by Nautilus, the power to utilize North Korea’s nuclear arsenal lies solely with the Supreme Leader – Kim Jong Un. Now, let us consider a few things about what the use of nuclear weapons could mean for Kim Jong Un. First, it must be pointed out that, in the case of any open hostilities with South Korea and the United States, North Korea would lose, utterly. This is not an ideal prediction, this is a matter of fact. North Korea could not possibly sustain a confrontation with South Korea and the United States – let alone win one. Worth noting, however, is the fact that nuclear weapons would not change this. North Korea’s inability to “win” a war stems not from an inability to deal damage – the KPA could do horrendous damage if given the chance – but, rather, from its inability to take damage. Refraining from going too deep into this subject for now, let us conclude, for simplicity’s sake, that war would mean the end for the Kim regime.
But would it, really?
Would Kim Jong Un really remain in North Korea and allow himself to be captured or killed? Let us remember that the Kim dynasty, and most of the regime’s greatest elites for that matter, has a vast wealth reserve to fall back on. According to research on the royal economy, most of this money comes from sources within none other than North Korea’s greatest ally, China. Furthermore, according to fairly recently released documents, China does possess a contingency plan for the “collapse” of North Korea – to include the rescuing of regime elites. All of this evidence and more points to the almost certain likelihood that there is a legitimate support system in place for Kim Jong Un and other North Korean elites in China should the country fall.
How are these two things related? The answer is simple: Kim Jong Un and the elites have a contingency plan in place should things go awry – and, should the unthinkable happen, there is a real chance for continued existence for those guilty of so much.
But not so much should nuclear weapons be used.
When it becomes clear to the world what has occurred in North Korea since the Kim dynasty came to power and how involved the Chinese Communist Party has been in preserving that regime, it will already be difficult for China, internationally and domestically, to justify safeguarding Kim Jong Un and the other North Korea elites – it would result in the instability that the CCP so greatly fears. This situation, however, would only be made more difficult should Kim use nuclear weapons. Then, not only would he be a criminal wanted for crimes against humanity, but he would also bear the burden of being the first person to use nuclear weapons since the second world war – a use of weaponry which would not – could not – change the outcome of the conflict and would only achieve further mass casualties, the fault of which would fall squarely on Kim Jong Un’s head. Effectively, if we take this scenario to be logically sound and reasonable, then the use of nuclear weapons, from Kim’s perspective, would only serve to worsen his situation considerably. There is no “I win”, so to speak.
It is at times like this that I like highlight a certain method of thinking that I have. I like to believe that if I, who am hardly an expert on North Korea or inductive reasoning, can reach this conclusion through understanding a situation and how one event might (will) affect another, it is likely that Kim Jong Un can reach the same conclusion. I do not claim to know Kim Jong Un’s personal contingency plan, but, in my view, there is a great likelihood that he understands what I understand: that the use of nuclear weapons would only serve to hurt him further in an already unfavorable situation – so, why would he use them?
Of course, this argument depends considerably on the understanding that Kim Jong Un and the rest of the governing body are rational thinkers – something that is debated by many and about which I plan to write an article in the future. Nevertheless, this line of reasoning, if we accept it to be sound, creates a reason to doubt that Kim Jong Un would use nuclear weapons as inevitably as we tend to believe. It essentially changes the narrative from “will” to “might not.”
While we, in the end, cannot know for sure the survival plans of the regime, this logic shows why it is important to remember whom we are referring to at all times. Kim Jong Un has a reason not to use nuclear weapons – the nameless, position-less North Korean pronoun does not.
Leave it to a Ling Major to draw a connection between pronouns and nuclear weapons.
A. Mansourov, “Kim Jong Un’s Nuclear Doctrine and Strategy: What Everyone Needs to Know”, NAPSNet Special Reports, December 16, 2014, http://nautilus.org/napsnet/napsnet-special-reports/kim-jong-uns-nuclear-doctrine-and-strategy-what-everyone-needs-to-know/