People keep asking me what Kim Jong-Un is up to at the moment. What is he hoping to achieve? Does he actually want to start a war? Is he really intending to launch nukes? I’m flattered that my friends and acquaintances think I might have an answer for them, but I don’t exactly have a hotline to Pyongyang and am thus privileged to the same information as everyone else outside of the intelligence services. Having said that, I do have an answer of sorts, which is hardly all that original – it’s all just a lot of posturing.
The recent escalation of rhetoric has certainly been dramatic. The bellicose reminder of the state of war between North and South Korea, tough talking about ballistic and nuclear capability, overzealous reactions to even the smallest slight from the south and, more recently, the statement that foreign embassy officials could no longer consider themselves safe in North Korea – all amounts to an alarming increase of tension, but likely little else. As an official at South Korea’s defence ministry quipped – “barking dogs don’t bite.”
Pyongyang’s recent attacks on the south – the torpedoing of the Cheonan, which left 46 dead, or the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, both in 2010 – have been by stealth, or come without warning. That doesn’t mean his threats have no substance, but it does suggests that talking and walking are by no means linked, so to speak.
Some years ago a wit described the India / Pakistan nuclear arms race as “Viagra Diplomacy,” a term which applies itself well to the current situation with North Korea. There is something ludicrously phallic about rocket launches, a situation not helped by North Korea’s tendency to suffix its rocket names with the word “Dong.” Take the Taepodong for example, a name which lends itself spectacularly to punning, or the even sillier and counter-intuitive Nodong, which was effectively an adapted Soviet SS1 or “Scud” and, dare I say it, a bit of a flop. Joking aside, there’s no doubt that North Korea has made progress with its ballistic capability and just may have the capacity to mount a nuclear warhead, but the threat to rain down missiles on the United States seems farfetched considering their as yet limited range of roughly 6000 kilometres.
Having said that, North Korea certainly has the capacity to target its immediate neighbours; the southern capital Seoul, at just 25 kilometres south of the border, is within artillery range. There is no doubt that North Korea could inflict terrible carnage if they wished to attack the south. Nuclear, chemical and biological weapons aside, the scale of their conventional forces is staggering. A quick glance at the Wikipedia list of countries by number of military and paramilitary personnel puts North Korea on top, with an active military of roughly 1.1 million, bolstered by an incredible 8 million reservists. The Korean war of 1950-53 cost the lives of two million people, and whilst any modern war would prove a very different beast, there is little doubt that it could also cost millions of lives.
Yet what, one must ask, would be the point? Surely, despite the capacity to inflict untold damage on the south, the North would ultimately be defeated. North Korea would have no allies – China would wash their hands of them and Pyongyang would find itself facing off against a broad alliance led by the United States and supported by the U.N. The north might achieve initial successes, but would surely lose the war, and, apart from the disastrous human, social, environmental and economic consequences of a conflict, losing the war would potentially mark the end of the regime, the end of military domination, and the end of North Korea as a state: the end of Kim Jong-Un. One suspects that nothing other than unconditional surrender would be demanded, especially considering how long the situation has festered and how great the desire to avoid any furtherance of this geopolitical cancer. What might follow is anyone’s guess: re-unification, a long and awkward occupation of the smoking ruins… It would all depend on the nature of the war, which, after an initial bout of shock and awe by both sides, could even be over in a couple of days with an internal coup.
Which brings us back to this important question of what the hell Kim Jong-Un is up to? If war is unlikely, what is the point of all this belligerent rhetoric and rocket-rattling? Surely the most likely explanation is that he wishes to shore up support at home.
Just as George Bush, John Howard and Tony Blair all rhetorically escalated the level of external threat to their respective countries after 9/11 in order to shore up domestic support for their imperial ambitions by creating a clear and present external danger, so it would seem King Jong-Un, perhaps struggling to define himself internally and to assert the legitimacy of his rule, wishes to create an almost hysterical climate of fear. If anything this whole business seems to highlight his insecurity rather than his capability or intent. Ironically the very survival of the regime depends on avoiding conflict, but the state largely defines itself through struggle and conflict.
The real fear is that with tensions so high war might begin by accident rather than design. Miscalculation, misinterpretation… it seems unlikely, but it is by no means impossible. The levels of readiness are such that hell could be unleashed at very short notice – perhaps before clarity prevails. Should a war begin, even by accident, it will be extremely difficult to stop.
There is also the genuine possibility that Kim Jong-Un is something of a nutcase. He is certainly less predictable than his familial predecessors and less well understood, but he must know as surely as anyone else that war would be the end of his regime with all its privileges.
It’s very easy to parody and caricature Kim Jong-Un as a greedy little brat of a despot, and I have to confess I’ve been guilty of such parody myself, yet whilst it might be childish fun to joke about him, it’s somewhat counterproductive. The belief that he is genuinely mad, propagated by the parodies and caricatures, only fuels the paranoia about his intentions.
Yet, as always with humour, there is a great deal of truth in much of it. He likely is a spoilt brat with delusions of grandeur instilled through constant inflation of his talents and charms, drunk on power. He really does come across as the tubby, nerdy gamer kid with a chip on his shoulder. His recent actions remind me of people on Facebook, including myself, who, when lonely or feeling starved of attention, start posting in a more exclamatory and regular manner. His international threats are like bad-tempered tweets – mouthing off at a world he can neither influence nor change because of his own relative impotence, despite having a vast army at his back.
We must not forget how recent his accession to the throne was. Despite great popular efforts to create a new cult of personality around him, there must be pressure to put his own personal stamp on the regime and cement his rule. Perhaps there is internal pressure from within the military himself. Perhaps he fears the ambitions of those who surround him. Perhaps there is fear of popular unrest. Whatever the case, all this rhetoric seems to be more inwardly focussed, despite its outward broadcast.
The real question now is what happens next, and, to be honest, I haven’t got the faintest idea. I suspect things will die down, flare up, die down, flare up, die down, flare up… for the next decade, possibly even longer. Then again, Kim Jong-Un might be dead next week, assassinated by an ambitious general, or dead by deep vein thrombosis for that matter. Whether North Korea will ever come in from the cold is anyone’s guess, but as unsustainable as the current situation appears to be, we should remember just how long it has been sustained – sixty years this very year. It is hardly possible for this feudal Stalinist regime to become more isolated internationally, and anyway, it is isolation and insularity that allows the regime to survive. Rarely have two nations existed in such contrasting states of connectivity as North and South Korea, the latter the most wired state in the world, the former disconnected from everything, including, it seems reality.
Perhaps somehow the internet will work its magic; perhaps starvation will start a revolution; perhaps there really will be coup, or an unexpected Myanmar-style change of heart. In all honesty I think there won’t be a war and nothing will change. Ten years from today, Kim Jong-Un will still be there, fatter than ever, rubbing his wealth in the face of his own people and waving his latest Dongs at the world.