In case you haven’t noticed, North Korea has been doing a lot of saber rattling over the past few weeks. If you listen to only the talking heads on television, you could easily believe the world stands on the brink of nuclear war. You would believe that Kim Jong Un is certifiably crazy, and is engaged in showing the USA (and President Trump, in particular) that he doesn’t have tiny hands.
Whatever else Kim might be, a crazed megalomaniac looking to annihilate Guam for the sake of a show of force is not it. He was literally bred to lead his country. Like his father and grandfather, he is dictator for life, assuming the reins only after the death of his predecessor. In olden days, we would have called him the third king of the Kim dynasty. Like monarchs of previous centuries, after assuming the throne he engaged in a purge of anyone who might challenge his power: family members, military leaders and others. To the modern mind, those moves seem outdated, bizarre, surreal; the actions of a madman.
Put in the proper context, they are anything but the actions of an insane megalomaniac. They are the actions of a cold, calculating monarch entrusted not only with leading his nation, but ensuring that the dynasty continues unabated. And if you judge Kim by that standard, then the current situation becomes much easier to understand.
North Korea is a small, isolated country of limited resources and not much material wealth. As it’s leader, Kim has certain responsibilities and like the monarchs of ages past, one of the most important is ensuring his subjects are fed. World history is replete with examples of monarchs who failed in that respect and the results have never been particularly good for them or their families. King Louis XVI lost not only his empire, but his head in the French Revolution. Czar Nicholas II was forced to watch his family’s executions before finally losing his life during the Russian Revolution. Kaiser Wilhelm II was forced to flee to the Netherlands when even his army turned against him.
Rest assured, Kim is well aware of all those historical precedents and has no intention of joining their ranks.
His current situation is dire. As mentioned above, his nation is isolated and materially poor. Historically, ensuring the North Korean people are fed is difficult enough – and this year, they’ve suffered their worst drought since at least 2001. Kim knows unless he can secure an imported food source, and the means to pay for it, he faces a winter of mass starvation, a discontented populace and internal unrest. Even if the people are unable to overcome generations of indoctrination and rise up against the regime, there still exists the very real possibility of the army deposing him.
So, what stands in Kim’s way of securing enough food to keep his nation fed? As it has been for the past 67 years, the United States and South Korea.
What Kim wants is to enter into direct negotiations with the both countries, with three ultimate objectives: 1, getting the current sanctions against North Korea lifted; 2, getting grain from the US and 3, obtaining a security guarantee. To that end, he has reverted to a standard North Korean negotiating tactic, threatening to tear up the 64 year old armistice and resuming hostilities.
After all, threats of open warfare worked for both his father and grandfather. It works for one reason: nobody wants to see a shooting war on the Korean peninsula again, particularly South Korea. During the 1950-53 war, the US suffered nearly 60,000 deaths – but South Korea lost over a half million people. (Nobody is certain how many North Koreans died, but most estimates put the number just shy of a million). The capital city, Seoul, was conquered and recaptured on 4 separate occasions. Fast forward to today: Seoul is home to over 10 million people (with another 15 million living in its suburbs) and sits only 35 miles from the border. It is within easy striking distance of conventional artillery, to say nothing of aircraft and rockets. Should the Korean War get “hot” again, it’s generally accepted that South Korea would suffer over a million civilian casualties on just the first day.
This is why ratcheting up the rhetoric always worked in the past. Even if the US is reluctant to grant anything to the North, pressure from the South (who desperately wants to avoid reopening hostilities) has led to begrudging acquiescence.
The calculated gamble Kim is making now is based on that history. The reason he’s amped up the rhetoric even more than in the past is he knows that unlike previous administrations, the current US leadership is unlikely to be swayed only by the pleas from what is currently a scandal-plagued South Korean government. By threatening a US territory, he is hoping to force Washington to the negotiating table.
It’s not that Kim actually wants a war with the US, He knows that in such an event, he wouldn’t last long. During the 1950-53 conflict, it took the combined power of China and the Soviet Union to stave off total defeat for North Korea. Of course, the wild card in all this is President Trump. He is unconventional, for certain. But what Kim has certainly factored into his consideration is that, thus far, the Trump administration has not deviated all that much from the past 25 years of US foreign policy, despite all the bluster.
Of course, the possibility of open conflict remains if Kim thinks he has no way out of the box he’s created – or if Trump decides that enough is enough and preemptively strikes. But I still don’t think that either will happen. I suspect that even as we bustle about our daily lives, backchannels are being opened and the first tentative steps towards negotiation are under way.