> Constructivism > PAC 85 – Dramatic Script in North Korea

PAC 85 – Dramatic Script in North Korea 12th of February 2013: North Korea’s third nuclear test since 2006

By Thomas Lindemann

Translation: Anton Stzepourginski

Passage au crible n°85


On the 12th of February 2013, the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) conducted its third nuclear test after 2006 and 2009. This was immediately followed by an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
This happened only two months after a previous missile launch by North Korea which led the UN to take measures against this so-called “satellite launch“. Also, on the 25th of January 2013, the DPRK warned South Korean authorities not to support UN economic sanctions. If not, they would expose themselves to a military attack. In the end, those economic sanctions (a freeze of assets against some nationals of the DPRK and their companies abroad) were lightened because of China’s active diplomatic efforts. Yet, there were violent reactions from North Korea.

Historical background
Theoretical framework

Historical background

After World War II North Korea emerged on the international scene as an opponent against Japan. It then quickly gained independence from its former allies and protectors (USSR and China) and implemented a closed political system. Today, ideologically speaking, North Korea is completely isolated. Yet, this country has kept on sparking major crisis since the end of World War II. As an example, in December 2010 South Korean military maneuvers led to limited military confrontation in the Korean peninsula.

Theoretical framework

According to a constructivist approach, an actor is never driven by interest in itself. On the contrary, it is shaped by traditional community beliefs built through interactions with other actors. For North Korean leaders, their heroic action reflects a defense of a dramatic script. The latter refers to a strong belief in the superiority of North Korea on the rest of the world. However, that magnificent representation of self (E. Goffman) remains fragile as every foreign actor is a potential threat to this script. The gap between this representation of self and the way international scene looks, can lead to dramatic measures in order to uphold this dramatic script. It is composed of these following elements:

1. The cast. If the self-representation is based on an oversized and charismatic legitimacy, the leaders have to take risks on the international stage in order to show how exceptional their country is. Thus, peaceful solutions can be easily ruled out if the official story is built on innocent parties being allegedly attacked (villagers, elderly people, women and children). Lastly, if the official story includes adverse parties characterized as “cowards, aggressive, heartless“, it will justified payback.
2. Dramatic scenes. In its national history, if the country is shown as a victim through specific scenes such as an act of aggression (Japanese imperialism, American imperialism), suffering (“comfort women“) and a response (guerrilla, autarky), it will justify violence. Finally, in the dramatic script, the more military force is described as trivial, compulsory or glorious, the more it will be legitimate. Therefore, a confrontational policy can be implemented by political leaders as soon as foreign actors affect that dramatic script. Otherwise, the country may suffer a loss of its legitimacy and its self-esteem may be affected too.


Juche (subject) official ideology is not very concerned with the aggressive and dominant position of the country. The essential aspect remains in fighting against any foreign influence (chaju means independence). North Korea is cast in stone and that makes it more prone to be challenged from other countries. There are several examples: mobile phones were forbidden until 2008 and external communications are still banned today. Moreover, North Korea’s hostility seems to be justified by its necessity to avoid any corruption of their ideology. In December 2011, three Christmas trees on the Korean border were the cause of serious tensions. Isn’t Kim dynasty shown as a family of secular gods deified by the founding father Kim-Jong-Il and his heroic wife Kim Jong Suk? As such, North Korean calendar begins with Kim-Jong-Il’s year of birth. The greatness of North Korea’s power is also symbolized through architecture with both the 150 meters tall Juche tower and its 20 meters tall illuminating Pyongyang, and the May Day Stadium (biggest in the world with its capacity of 150,000). This hubristic self-representation needs to be taken into consideration in order to fully understand North Korean continued provocative actions. Indeed, new leader Kim-Jong-Un knows that he has to reveal its direct line of divine descent to the population and the elites. Therefore, the nuclear test of February 2013 and the missile launch of December 2012 were nothing but Kim-Jong-Un’s way of showing how manly he was. There are several striking elements to notice. Firstly, in North Korea, missile launch are closely filmed in order to make the missiles look more powerful (whereas Ariane rockets launch are always recorded from a certain distance). Secondly, the calculated speed of the rocket (claimed by North Korean authorities) was far too fast to obey the physical laws of universal gravity. Lastly, North Korea immediately claimed responsibility for the third nuclear test in the most provocative and spectacular way possible against its perpetual enemies. Those are often described, in an abstract way, as imperialists or dominating countries. The main criterion for this designation remains social class. After both the missile launch and the UN sanctions, North Korea military announced that several tests were to be conducted along with a major nuclear test. The United States, enemy, were the main target of those announcements.

In North Korea, violence is punished, yet it has been trivialized. There are many major military parades and it has the fourth-largest army in the world, at an estimated 1.21 million armed personnel. According to the official line, nuclear taboo has not been internalized yet and its utilitarian function is still very popular amongst North Korean leaders. As an example, in 2010, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces Ri Yong-Ho said he would use the atomic bomb “if the imperialists and their followers dare to violate North Korea’s sovereignty and dignity“.

Therefore, because of their hubristic self-representation and their cult of military power, it seems very complicated to talk the North Koreans out of something they want to do. In the end, most of their ambitions are national. Thus, more adequate policies have to be found, otherwise North Korea will always bare its teeth and, eventually, bite.

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