In North Korea, missiles and nuclear bombs are more than a means of national defense — they are, for broad segments of the public, objects of near-religious devotion.
In Pyongyang, the country’s capital, missiles feature constantly in newspapers and on television. They emerge from flower pots in floral exhibitions; loom large in public mosaics; and adorn propaganda posters in factories, farms and schools. They’re often depicted in mid-flight, framed by bold militaristic slogans
North Korea is gradually developing the capability to fit a nuclear device on an intercontinental ballistic missile, a technology that could one day enable it to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S., and any other nation that might threaten the survival of the Kim family dynasty.
Yet a close reading of the country’s propaganda suggests that its goals may be more ambitious — and more aggressive in nature — than foreign observers often assume.
One longtime analyst of the secretive country’s murky ideology says it’s become clear that North Korea’s rulers have come to consider nuclear capability not just a means of defense, but the only way of achieving their most important goal: to rid South Korea of U.S. troops, and reunite the Korean peninsula on their own terms.
“North Korea is a radical nationalist state and it’s committed to anything that anybody in North Korea’s position would be — which is the reunification of the [Korean] race, and the reunification of the homeland,” said B.R. Myers, a professor at Dongseo University in South Korea who has studied the official ideology of self-reliance, known as juche, that has been a fundamental feature of the North Korean state since the 1950s.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula are at their highest point in years. North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests since 2006, and could soon conduct its sixth. Its missile tests have become routine, including another attempted launch Friday. The U.S., in response to North Korean tests and threats, has diverted an aircraft carrier strike group to the Korean peninsula. North Korea, meanwhile, has responded with a massive artillery exercise and warnings of imminent nuclear war.
Why is this happening? The North’s strategic calculus hasn’t changed in decades, Myers said. In 1994, President Clinton contemplated a preemptive strike on the North’s nuclear weapons program — yet he balked in the face of the potential fallout: North Korea has a devastating array of artillery aimed at Seoul, which sits 35 miles south of the countries’ heavily militarized border, and if a conflict were to erupt, hundreds of thousands of South Koreans could be killed within an hour.
Now, Kim Jong Un, the country’s current leader, has accelerated efforts to enable a strike not just on Seoul, but on the U.S.
“Why is it doing the one thing that could cause the U.S. to strike North Korea, even at the risk of South Korean fatalities?” Myers said. “The only logical answer is that it’s pursuing something greater than mere security — and there’s only one logical conclusion as to what that is.”
North Korea has been demanding the removal of U.S. troops from South Korea since the Korean War, which ended with an armistice in 1953. In December 1955, Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder-president and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, said in a speech that "peaceful unification" was the ideal option, and could come about when "we grow stronger" and the "forces of peace, democracy and socialism become more powerful.”
If that fails, “the problem of reunification might also be solved by war,” he said.
Pyongyang is probably confident that it can drive a wedge between Seoul and Washington, Myers said. South Korea will elect a new president on May 9, and both front-runners advocate a relatively lenient North Korea policy.
North Korea is unlikely to get its wish, at least anytime soon. The U.S. has shown no sign of withdrawing its military commitment to South Korea, and South Korea is, economically, light years ahead of its northern neighbor.
But “we need to distinguish the feasibility of the strategy from the likelihood that North Korea is pursuing it,” Myers said. “The world isn’t going to become an Islamic caliphate, but that doesn’t stop the Islamists from pursuing that as a goal. And the North Koreans are pursuing something more feasible than what Islamic State is.”
In North Korea, militant propaganda is ubiquitous and shrill. Often, images of missiles are paired with slogans denouncing “U.S. imperialists” and calling for reunification. “Start a war against us, we strike the American bastards first!” says one poster, showing missiles destroying the Capitol building in Washington.
One mosaic on Pyongyang’s metro depicts Kim Il Sung as the sun, watching over a gleeful scene of reunification under the North Korean flag; another shows the North Korean proletariat, led by Kim, advancing against a backdrop of tanks, planes, and most prominently, flying missiles.
“We want Trump to withdraw the troops of U.S. Army from South Korea,” said Rim Daesong, 28, a North Korean official, as he stepped onto a train. “The U.S. government has to change its policies, in order that our country can reunify independently.”
In February, North Korea’s state news agency KCNA called a successful ballistic missile test “a pride of Kim Il Sung's nation [that] has instilled vitality into the glorious Kim Jong Un's era,” adding that “getting firmer is the fellow countrymen's conviction in the final victory of the cause of national reunification.”
Fyodor Tertitskiy, an expert on North Korean ideology at Seoul National University, said that North Korean propagandists often cast the country’s missile program “as a defensive measure,” in line with rockets that it has used to put satellites into orbit.
Yet North Korean media often represent nuclear weapons as a direct blessing from the Kim family, Tertitskiy said, as a symbol of its “infinite wisdom” in building “the glory of the nation.”
“They really downplay this in the English-language propaganda,” he said, “but when you look at the Korean original, it’s very, very intense.”
Daniel Pinkston, an international relations expert at Troy University in Seoul, said the North Korean government has also framed missiles and rockets as historic scientific achievements. “The propaganda value is that the regime can take credit for managing these projects that are very visible,” he continued. “When people look at it, it’s like, ‘Our scientists did that!’ It’s a kind of pride. The leadership recognize that. They feel it. They know it.”
On April 15, North Korea held a military parade to mark the 105th anniversary of Kim Il Sung’s birth. Processions of soldiers, tanks and missiles were followed by a line of floats, each one surrounded by hundreds of flag-waving citizens. One float glorified doctors; another athletes; another economic development.
But one of the biggest depicted doves flying over a globe — along with a handful of missiles. In bold Korean script, it read: “for the peace and security of the world.”