After North Korea burnished its credentials last year as a nuclear-armed state, there's been much discussion about what Pyongyang aims to do with its nuclear missiles. The panic in the western media has been palpable. But so is the contrast with the South Korean media's more sanguine response. I find it notable that The Interpreter's most read post of 2017 was on precisely this topic. Why were South Korean officials going on holiday when US President Donald Trump was talking about 'fire and fury'? Why did South Korean celebrity news routinely crowd out North Korea in the press last year?
The answer is partially exhaustion. South Koreans have been living next to North Korea and its threats for so long that there is now a 'boy who cried wolf' effect. North Korean threats have been so over-the-top and ridiculous for so long that South Koreans simply tune it out. When the North says it wants to reunify Korea or turn Seoul into a 'sea of flame', the effect is more eye-rolling than fear. In short, talk is cheap, and no state more than North Korea has demonstrated that over the years.
Another answer is that North Korea probably no longer really wants to reunify Korea, no matter what it says, and that recognition has slowly filtered through. All things being equal, sure, North Korea would like unification on its own terms. But is it willing to carry real costs for that? Probably not.
Indeed, South Korea is probably no longer willing to carry real costs for pushing unification either. De jure, these are both irredentist-revisionist states; constitutionally, they are committed to unification. And North Korea being what it is, Northern rhetoric about unity is predictably frightening and extreme. But de facto, neither Korea is making serious (ie. costly) moves to bring unity about.
I bring this up, because the issue of North Korean goals – specifically, will it use its nuclear weapons to somehow coerce South Korea into an unwanted federation or other unequal but united framework, or even as a shield against the US to invade South Korea once again – has been in the news recently as the nuclear program has ramped up (here, here, here, and here). Much of this anxiety strikes me as exaggerated. It is far more likely that North Korea is a status quo power seeking nuclear weapons for regime security.
1. Just Because North Korea Says That It Wants Unification Does Not Mean It Will Actually Carry Costs For That Goal
I find this one of the most curious reasons to argue that North Korea in fact still seeks unification. The notion seems to be that figures such as Lenin, Hitler, and Mao did in fact write down what they wanted to do, so we should similarly take the Kims seriously. But as is well-established, the North says lots of frightening and terrible things on which it does not follow through. And Kim Il-sung, one is told in Pyongyang's 'Three Revolution Exhibition', wrote 18,000 tracts (yes, that is what the guide tells you). So how do we know what in that voluminous corpus we should actually take seriously? And since North Korea lies so much anyway, how should we know what to believe?
We should look rather at actions. Since the 1980s, North Korea has not engaged in strategic provocation (although tactical provocations are quite common of course). The last record we have of any serious discussion to absorb South Korea against its will dates to the 1970s, when Kim Il-sung went to the Soviets and Chinese after the US defeat in Vietnam and asked for support for a second invasion. He was rejected.
2. Nuclear Weapons Are Not Particularly Good Offensive Weapons
It is similarly unclear to me why nuclear weapons would suddenly improve North Korea's ability to coerce unification. Nuclear weapons may seem offensive and destabilising in the movies, but in fact, they have become defensive weapons in practice. That is, their ability to return punishing force on an aggressor makes them an ideal deterrent, and most states have sought them for that purpose. Indeed, the North Koreans have told us that repeatedly. If we are to believe what the North Koreans tell us, per point 1, then why not believe this point, instead of their fiery unification rhetoric?
3. North Korea Could Not Win Conventionally
One argument for the unification school is that Northern nuclear weapons could act as a shield or cover to neuter US defensive alliance and then conventionally attack the South. Nukes would 'de-couple' the US from South Korea, because the US would not give up San Francisco for Seoul. Washington would abjure its alliance commitment to defend South Korea, because it would not risk a North Korean nuclear strike against the US homeland. The two Koreas would then be left to fight it out, like two scorpions in a bottle.
Yet even if this alliance break-down logic were to hold, South Korea would win a conventional conflict with the North. Certainly, it would be harder without the US. But with a GDP 40 times the North's, a defence budget approaching the size of North Korea's entire economy (yes, really), and a healthier population more than twice the size, the South is more than a match for the North.
4. North Korea Could Not Absorb South Korea Even If It Could Win
Even if we assume the worst possible scenarios, could a victorious North Korea even absorb South Korea? North Korea is a highly stylised, unique society. It has extremely rigid rules, such as the songbun system or mandated weekly ideological training. It has almost no experience integrating newcomers – it treated the biggest group of outsiders to come, ethnic Korean returnees from Japan, terribly – nor any history of immigration. Unlike democracies, it lacks the most basic social flexibility to absorb outsiders and adjust to them.
A North Korean taking of South Korea would look more like a conquest than unification. It would not be Germany 1990 – a unity sought by the absorbed – but like Reconstruction after the US Civil War – broadly and almost certainly violently rejected. Further, the wealth and boon the North would expect from absorption would not arrive. South Korea's wealth depends on its economic openness and access to globalisation. As the North occupied the South, it would dramatically impoverish it as well.
It is, of course, impossible to know the North's strategic intentions. But its lying is so routine that it is safest to look at what it does, not what it not says. In North Korea's actions there is little to suggest, since the 1980s, that it still meaningfully strives for unification. Yes, it wants it, but not at serious cost or risk. Without clear signalling from the North on its goals, we can still use logic to reason about unification on Northern terms, and it is punishing.
South Korea would not simply roll over; it is unclear if North Korea's brittle system could withstand a sustained inter-Korean conflict even without the US. And even if it won, it would face 53 million surly, immiserating South Koreans highly likely to fight back against the imposition of a slave-state system.
So yes, perhaps in Kim Jong-un's ideal, ceteris paribus world, he reunifies Korea. But the risks to North Korea are so high, that it is far more likely that its nukes serve regime security, just as they do for so many other nuclear aspirants.