North Korea

Kim is no Gaddafi

By Andrej Mrevlje |

“We are sending an armada, very powerful,” he said. “We have submarines, very powerful, far more powerful than the aircraft carrier. That much I can tell you,” he said. And we have the best military people on Earth. And I will say this: he is doing the wrong thing,”

This is what Donald Trump, the 45th President of United States, had to say on Kim Jong Un in April 12 interview with Maria Bartiromo, of the FOX Business Network. Watch the interview. The level of infantilism in the president’s words and tone is incredible. It reminds me of the prepubescent age, when boys bicker for nothing, fight until someone brags about his older and stronger brother who’s ready to avenge him if anyone in the group touches him. This might be translated, in adult-speak, to deterrence. But the more I watched that video, the more Trump’s thinking reflected pure infantilism.

Where is all this bringing us? Little does it matter that Trump’s armada, or shall we call it his older and stronger brother, was sailing away from the target when the president threatened the North Korean leader. Little does it matter that Kim Jong Un, while celebrating his dead grandpa with a huge military parade, was most probably rolling out a new generation of hoax missiles. Whether they were made out of carton board, plastic or steel, little too does that matter. The two sides are playing and staging a child’s game that may end tragically.

But not right now. Objectively, there is a very little chance that one or the other side would do something stupid, nuclear stupid. And yet, the heavy barrage of words has never been louder. We have to remember that the barking dog never bites. So, let just said that with Trump in the White House, the governance changed and the Pyongyang is merely mimicking its enemy in the sandbox. It’s all fun and games….     

The latest in the series of Pyongyang’s outrages was the reaction to the speech of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he announced that “the U.S. was looking at ways to bring pressure to bear on North Korea over its nuclear program.” In other words, Tillerson did not just bark — “We are coming to take you!” — but openly laid out the goal to denuclearize North Korea. Nothing new in this, but the ex-Exxon man hit the right nerve. Pyongyang screamed back with its ritual fanaticism, threatening a “super-mighty preemptive strike that will completely and immediately wipe out not only U.S. imperialists’ invasion forces in South Korea and its surrounding areas but the U.S. mainland and reduce them to ashes!”

North Koreans are nuts. They push the limits, and they test everyone. But Kim Jong Un is not as irrational as Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to UN, described him to be.

In many of his writings, Russian scholar and professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, Andrei Lankov, underlines why the seemingly crazy regime in Pyongyang sticks to its very coherent strategy of survival. First of all, Pyongyang knows that the regime collapse will likely lead to the unification of two Koreas and most probably to the obliteration of the entire North Korean elite. For the Kim Family and a tiny circle of top decision makers, regime collapse means their death and the death of their loved ones. The stakes are exceptionally high, and regime survival is the overriding goal, with everything else clearly subordinate to it.

The significant threat to the North Korean regime is a foreign-backed regime change. One can imagine it similar to the invasion of Iraq or the bombing and external support, with no troops on the ground, in Libya. But the biggest danger for the Kim dynasty is a foreign-backed popular uprising. Whatever the danger, the regime in Pyongyang, according to Lankov, is aware that the only way to prevent this threat is military deterrence. In the case of North Korea, that means nuclear deterrence.

As Lankov explains it one of his essays:

Now Kim Jong Un is determined to achieve what nuclear weapons experts usually call a ‘second strike capability’ that is, the ability to survive the opponent’s first attack and then still have enough nuclear warheads to deliver a counter-strike.

This is what Kim Jong Un is quite close to achieving now. Even though these efforts might provoke a military response from the U.S., and hence can be described as excessively risky, it is difficult to describe them as ‘irrational’.

He is aware that a country with a ‘second strike capability’ is unlikely to be attacked, or, in the case of an internal revolution, unlikely to face excessive pressure from the outside world – and he is probably right in such assumptions.

Trump and his family might believe that Kim Jong-un will accept denuclearization and allow a measure of domestic liberalization in exchange for generous economic aid from the West – like Gaddafi once did. Unfortunately, as Obama’s government understood, Kim Jong Un knows only too well how Gaddafi ended his days and has not the slightest intention of becoming reasonable and accepting the policy that is likely to have him, and perhaps, his family, slaughtered.

There is no other possibility but to sit down at the negotiating table, abandoned years ago. Maybe this time, China might take a more proactive stand towards Pyongyang. To my mind, it all depends on favors exchanged between Washington and Beijing; taming Pyongyang without disarming it is a favor Beijing could do for D.C. As for the barking between Pyongyang and Washington in the last few weeks, let’s speak with Lankov again:

The events which attracted so much attention from the world media in the last 2-3 weeks appear to be another diplomatic show, rather than actual demonstration of force

This current campaign, seemingly, hopes to achieve two goals. One intended target is, of course, Pyongyang. Obviously, Americans hope that the North Koreans, being treated with such a show of strength and resolve, will behave like the Americans sometimes behaved in the past when facing a sudden – and carefully simulated – North Korean bellicosity: they hope that the North Koreans will give in and, for a while, refrain from dangerous actions. Above all, it is hoped that such pressure will make Pyongyang postpone nuclear tests and long-distance missile launches.

The second goal is Beijing. A show of strength, combined with hints at a possible military action, should persuade Beijing that China’s long-term interests would be better served if China agrees to increase its pressure on North Korea.

There is no immediate threat from the long range missiles. The situation will become dangerous when the DPRK successfully launches an ICBM capable of hitting targets in the continental U.S. – that is, an ICBM with a range close to 10,000 km. Lankov, too,

thinks that parading something that looks like inter-continental ballistic missiles is not enough. It must be launched to be the threat we imagine. And North Korea is not there yet.
When it is capable of launching, North Korea will become a real nuclear power, and the situation will become much more sober, critical. In the meantime, small cyber attacks, like those that caused the failure of the last (and a few other) missile tests, can be done in silence, without screaming.

☆ Support this work via Venmo

Yonder is a weekly newsletter from Andrej Mrevlje that connects global events in the news, delivered every week. Learn more »