Coupling and De-coupling the North Korean Missile Program from the Kim Jong-un Reformer Narrative

An essay earlier this year by Fyodor Tertitsky, and a recent NewsHour interview with missile specialist Jeffrey Lewis, got me thinking about the nature of the relationship between reform and science/technological advancement in North Korea.

Journalist Judy Woodruff concluded her interview with Lewis by almost incredulously asking, “Does North Korea have its own super smart scientists, or do they steal this technology from abroad?”

This is one very serious problem with framing most of the mainstream media discourse on North Korea: The primary profile of the country shown is the missile and nuclear programmes, meaning that the country and political system primarily exists as a kind of “host state” or shell for the nukes.

Naturally, the North Korean state itself frames its nuclear program precisely opposite: We have a society, and a legacy, and are advancing and “the treasured sword” of our nuclear weapons programme protects that society, legacy, and enables advancement.

Also, what happened to the DPRK’s own assertion that its missiles were mainly for a satellite and space program? A series of data points shows the progression of this artifice over the past five years.


Kim Jong-un has personally taken an interest in and driven initiatives like distance education and satellite use for improvement of weather forecasting and farming. (See Kim Jong-un’s field guidance of 11 or 12 June 2014 with Choe Ryong-hae as the key example.) Such trends indicate that DPRK overall political culture and the word of the Supreme Leader is leaning in the appropriate direction for more international collaboration with scientists.

Internal politics of Kim Jong-un and the farmers should go beyond his statements on land use from 2012, since there are indicators that efforts are afoot to modernize some older elements, alongside traditionalist strengthening of elements like the “3 Revolution Work Teams,” communes, the constant bigging up of Kim Il-sung’s 1964 rural theses, and “volunteer” urban labour at planting and harvest times.

Those arguing for scientific engagement with North Korea need to make the argument that foreign interlocutors and aid agencies would somehow strengthen the tendencies toward professionalization within this large spectrum of North Korean approaches to agriculture, even as they strengthen the notions of regime supremacy (i.e. that Kim Jong-un allows for such exchanges to go forward, and thus the goodwill accrues to him rather than the outside agencies footing the bill and doing the labour).


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