North Korea’s Nuclear Theater

The most important rule in the world of theater is to keep the attention of your audience. If they become distracted or bored, if they start to fidget in their seats, the illusion of the spectacle is at risk. Once word gets out that you can’t deliver as a playwright or a director, the audiences dwindle. And fewer people are interested in your next offering.

North Korean leaders have always understood the importance of theater. The founder of the country, Kim Il Sung, created several theater productions—Sea of Blood, The Flower Girl—that translated the regime’s ideology into simple, stirring stories for the masses. His son and successor, Kim Jong Il, fancied himself a film director who brought his father’s works to the big screen. Theater and film offered an enhanced version of North Korean reality, a place where good always triumphed over evil and mistakes could be airbrushed out of existence.

The North Korean leadership has used its nuclear program for theatrical purposes from the very beginning. It has relied on the spectacle of rocket launches and covert nuclear facilities to keep the attention of its foreign and domestic audiences. It hasn’t paid much attention to the critics and their punitive responses. As long as North Korean citizens are dazzled and foreign leaders are riveted, the nuclear program has accomplished its aims.

Until this week, North Korea’s record has not exactly been stellar. It conducted two nuclear tests that have still left some doubt as to whether the country properly belongs within the nuclear club. And its three previous long-range rocket launches, ostensibly to put a satellite into orbit but also to test three-stage missiles, have failed to achieve their objectives.

Still, Pyongyang’s theatrical capabilities have been brilliantly showcased. Over roughly the same period, Iran successfully launched three small satellites and didn’t garner anywhere near the same attention from the media or the international community. North Korea, despite spectacular failure, has kept its audiences at the edge of their seats.

And now, finally, it seems that North Korea has managed to get something into orbit. The Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite is apparently above our heads providing weather updates and broadcasting propaganda songs.

For audiences at home, the rocket launches have a special significance lost on most outside observers. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of the country’s number one playwright, Kim Il Sung. This month marks the one-year anniversary of the death of the country’s number one director, Kim Jong Il. The government has been promising the population for nearly a decade that it will soon achieve the status of a militarily strong and economically prosperous country. A successful rocket launch meets both these goals, at least superficially. The rocket suggests that the country has sufficient deterrent capabilities to prevent hostile countries from repeating a Kabul or Iraq scenario with Pyongyang. And only the most economically advanced countries in the world are able to launch their own satellites into orbit.

Of course, North Korea remains near the bottom of the world’s economies. And its much-vaunted military power doesn’t really match up to South Korea’s, not to mention the United States.

But theater is all about creating illusions. The rocket launch creates an illusion for the people of North Korea that they live, if not in paradise, then at least in a country that holds its own against many adversaries.

Theater is also about sustaining spectacle, which is why the nuclear program continues to engage an international audience. The North Korean leadership knows that although the country occupies a critical place in the geopolitics of Northeast Asia, the international community would pay it little attention were it not for Pyongyang’s nuclear program. It’s the fundamental mystery of North Korea’s intentions and objectives that continues to engage outside observers.

This isn’t very different from what keeps audiences in a theater paying attention. They want to know what happens next. North Korea is always keeping us guessing.

By contrast, the United States and its allies are rather predictable. In response to North Korea’s satellite launch, the Obama administration will be pushing for even tighter sanctions against Pyongyang. This is tantamount to a theater critic who adds even more disparaging comments to a review of a particular play in the hopes that the negative notices will shorten the run of the production. But if the play continues to engage audiences at home and abroad, the producers will ignore these sanctions.

If Washington wants to change the dynamic with Pyongyang, it’s going to have to do something unpredictable of its own. Instead of pursuing its failed policy of “strategic patience,” the Obama administration should try learning some theatrical lessons from Pyongyang. By engaging North Korea in a comprehensive deal that brings the isolated country into the international community, the Obama administration could create a spectacle of its own.

It’s not about persuading North Korea to give up its one big theatrical prop. Pyongyang is as reluctant to give up its nuclear program as the producers of War Horse are unlikely to jettison their equestrian puppet. Rather, it’s about ensuring that North Korea doesn’t use whatever it has and cooperates with international institutions to improve its economy, political structures, and human rights record. But that requires Washington to stop acting like a passive audience and actively engage with North Korea. “No drama” Obama, in other words, has to think creatively—and theatrically—about how to alter the script and create a different kind of gripping narrative for the people of North Korea.

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38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea