Last week, the leaders of two superpowers representing around one-quarter of the world’s population and one-third of its GDP met in Florida. Their discussions were expected to be dominated by the nuclear weapons program of Kim Jong-un. As it turned out, the meeting was largely sidelined when the U.S. launched an airstrike to deter the chemical weapons program of Bashar al-Assad.
Kim Jong-un is the leader of one of the world’s most impoverished and isolated countries, while Assad is barely in control of half the territory of his own country. But despite the many pressing global issues, to a remarkable extent, global politics today is dominated by the vexing question of how to deal with these two men whose regimes have survived in blatant violation of international law and norms, despite long odds, powerful foes, and internal strife.
The parallel shouldn’t be taken too far. Syria was a stable and relatively prosperous society until civil war broke out. The Kim regime has never had the level of political engagement with the West that Syria had during those years—Vogue was never going to write any fawning profiles of the Kim family.
But there are some interesting biographical similarities between the two. Both lead parties, the Arab Socialist Baath Party and the Worker’s Party of Korea, that feel like anachronistic Cold War holdovers even if they’re only nominally Socialist these days. Both were partly educated in Europe—Assad studied ophthalmology in London, Kim reportedly attended boarding school in Switzerland. Both inherited their positions from their fathers, Hafez al-Assad and Kim Jong-il, and both were younger sons who were not initially expected to take over the family business. Assad was called back to Syria after his older brother Bassel was killed in a car crash in 1994. Oldest son Kim Jong-nam was being groomed for the top job until he embarrassed the family by getting arrested on his way to Tokyo Disneyland in 2001. (Kim Jong-nam was later exiled and in February he was murdered in Malaysia, allegedly by North Korean agents.)
Neither quite cuts the charismatic strongman figure of a Castro or a Qaddafi. Assad was once seen by outside observers as the “geeky IT guy” of the family. Last month, Sen. John McCain summed up the prevailing Western view of Kim Jong-un by referring to him as “this crazy fat kid that’s running North Korea.”
Perhaps these optics help explain why both leaders have been so continually underestimated. Consider that both have crossed any number of the international community’s “red lines” with illegal weapons programs. North Korea’s nuclear capabilities continue to improve at a remarkable clip. Syria’s nuclear program—built with North Korean help—was mostly wiped out by an Israeli airstrike in 2007, but the Assad regime has continually used illegal chemical weapons against its own people.
Both have survived tight international sanctions as well as covert U.S. espionage campaigns—cyberattacks in the North Korean case, support for rebels in the Syrian—and both have faced international opprobrium for their use of torture, starvation tactics, and support for terrorism. Both exist in dangerous regions with hostile neighbors backed by U.S. military might: Israel and South Korea/Japan. And both—in the North Korean case, including the end of Kim’s father’s regime, who died in 2011—have weathered two different U.S. administrations (Bush and Obama) who showed themselves willing to use force to overthrow hostile foreign leaders (Saddam and Qaddafi.)
How have they managed to pull this off? One obvious factor is their powerful patrons: Russia in Assad’s case, China in Kim’s. In both cases, though, these relationships are a little more complicated than how they’re sometimes portrayed. The Russian strategic alliance with Syria dates back to the 1950s, but as recently as 2015, the Kremlin seemed to be wavering in its support for Assad, entertaining the idea that he could be replaced as part of a peace deal. China sees North Korea as a useful buffer to U.S. military power but has frequently shown impatience with the Kim regime and imposed some limited sanctions, albeit not to the extent the U.S. would like. But still, both regimes have proven quite adept at keeping their allies on board without always taking marching orders from them.
In addition to international support, both have managed to retain the loyalty of key internal supporters—his own minority Alawite sect in Assad’s case, senior party elites in Kim’s. In recent years, we’ve heard constant rumors of coups and impending collapse for both governments, often coming from defectors, none of which ever seem to amount to anything.
That might be because though they face enormous international hostility, most governments are still less afraid of them than they are of what would happen if they were ever overthrown. The U.S. has thus far avoided taking action that would pave the way for the overthrow of Assad because we fear that extremist groups would fill the resulting power vacuum. In North Korea, the collapse of the regime would create a massive humanitarian crisis as a nation of traumatized and immiserated people suddenly became South Korea and China’s problem. And this may ultimately be their biggest advantage when it comes to survival. Incredibly, these leaders have managed to create situations so unstable and desperate in their countries that they’ve made themselves indispensible.
Of course, neither Syria nor North Korea has ever dealt with a U.S. president quite like Donald Trump. Throughout his campaign, Trump strongly opposed the idea of regime change in Syria and described Assad as a “naturally ally.” Then, last week, he abruptly shifted course after witnessing Assad’s latest chemical attack—neither the first nor the worst that the regime has carried out—and ordered a missile strike against the Syrian military, a step Obama avoided for six years. For now, it appears this was a limited one-time strike and not the prelude to a larger offensive against the regime, but it’s hard to say now how the situation will develop.
The Trump administration has also put out hints that it’s willing to use force to deter North Korea’s nuclear program, and some suspect that the Syria strikes was in part meant to show Pyongyang that the U.S. is now willing to back those threats up. The U.S. Navy has also re-routed an aircraft carrier and several warships toward North Korea this week as a show of force.
While this president’s foreign policy stances have been unpredictable and volatile, my guess is that there’s still only so far the U.S. will go in either case given that no one really wants to take responsibility for what would happen if either fell. At this point, it would be a mistake to underestimate the survival skills of either leader, who have demonstrated how sheer ruthlessness and guile can keep a “rogue” regime in power, even in an era of regime change.
Update, April 12, 2017: The Wall Street Journal, citing North Korea's Korea Central News Agency reports that Assad sent a message to Kim this week saying that the two countries are “conducting a war against big powers’ wild ambition to subject all countries to their expansionist and dominationist policy.”