In the past, charismatic leaders who have pursued a nuclear weapons program have either successfully acquired a robust arsenal—as in the cases of Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin—or abandoned their efforts with relatively quiet cooperation, as in the case of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. In instances where leaders have been publicly condemned and threatened with retaliation, their drive to weaponize has only become more resolute, resulting in backlash against the “aggressors” and continued progress for the program—as seen in Kim Jong-un’s North Korea.
The Kim regime is an extreme example of charismatic leadership, a form of authoritarian regime in which the head of state’s power is derived from the population’s perception of hero- or divine-like qualities rather than ruling capability. In cases of charismatic leadership, where legitimacy and survival depend on domestically constructed ideas to maintain a following, overt uses of force by external factions further bolsters the resolve to pursue or maintain a chosen course of action. When external powers apply pressure to induce a program rollback, the regime’s leader has no choice but to portray the threat as a danger to the wellbeing of the state. This portrayal creates a common enemy while reaffirming leadership strength. If a regime has already decided to proceed with a program, a rollback in response to international pressures would show weakness and put the regime’s power at risk.
It is difficult to force any state to abandon a nuclear weapons program. Due to the high monetary and political costs of starting a program, the decision to forfeit sunk capital in exchange for externally provided security—especially to those who accepted the justifications for weaponizing in the first place—appears to run counter to the state’s best interest. In the case of a charismatic head of state, for whom the survival of the leadership is a higher priority than the wellbeing of the population or acceptance into the international community, the response to external pressure is heavy resistance. North Korea’s Juche ideology, which was founded by Kim Il-sung and emphasizes self-reliance, further justifies internal actions and allows external pressure to be reconfigured as an attack on the independence of the state.
The current situation in North Korea illustrates the extent to which overt, aggressive action creates an increasingly dangerous and difficult situation when directed against charismatic leadership. In response to the US decision in March to conduct flyovers of nuclear-weapons-capable aircraft in South Korea, the Kim regime issued a statement warning the international community that those working in foreign embassies in North Korea would no longer be protected. When the United States continued its show of force with joint military exercises on the Korean Peninsula, Kim Jong-un intensified his threats against the United States and South Korea, nullifying the 1953 armistice between the North and South and moving missiles to coastal launch sites in April. Although the missiles were removed a month later, the recurrent failure of aggressive tactics illustrates the need for a new approach.
There is no easy route to denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, improved relations and an ease of tensions will be extremely important for regional stability and an eventual resolution to the conflict. Allowing the situation to devolve into an armed confrontation runs the risk of even greater escalation. Covert communications offer the greatest potential for success, allowing Kim Jong-un to defend a rollback as a purely domestic decision. Opening up guaranteed lines of assistance while avoiding an overwhelming assertion of foreign pressure would act in a similar way, permitting the Kim regime to lay claim to improvements within the state in exchange for disbanding its nuclear capability. Leveraging China’s influence and International Atomic Energy Agency cooperation, while avoiding overt military actions in cooperation with South Korea, would alleviate concerns that denuclearization is a purely Western enterprise bent on disrupting the Juche ideology and the Kim regime. The failure of current policies has resulted in the continued development and testing of North Korean nuclear weapons, an expansion of missile capabilities, and significantly worsened tensions on the peninsula. These tactics are placing American troops and South Korean citizens at increasing risk—a trajectory that can no longer be accepted and must be changed.