Why North Korea’s New Leader Will Act Crazy, Even If He Isn’t Crazy

Military analysis.
Dec. 19 2011 5:17 PM

Will North Korea Stay Crazy?

We know practically nothing about its new leader and what he might do. That’s scary.

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It’s unclear what Kim Jong-Il’s death means for the prospects of nuclear arms control. There were rumors, earlier this month, of a possible bargain by which the United States would send 250,000 tons of grain to the North Koreans, in exchange for the suspension of their uranium-enrichment program. The U.S. envoy to North Korea, Glyn Davies, was scheduled to return to Beijing next week for discussions about possibly reviving the long-moribund Six-Party Talks on North Korea’s nukes.

The truth of these reports, much less the chance that the new North Korean leader will be in any position to act on them any time soon, is not known.

Soon after Kim Jong-il came to power, he and the Clinton administration negotiated the Agreed Framework, which froze North Korea’s plutonium program and opened up its reprocessing plant to Western inspectors. But Kim Il Sung had started these talks. The various ministries were all behind them; Jong-il simply continued what was already in motion.

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In the final weeks of his presidency, Clinton sent his secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, to Pyongyang for talks on a ban of missiles. Twelve hours of face-to-face talks were held—Albright, Kim Jong-il, and their respective staffs. Some of Albright’s assistants—including Wendy Sherman and Robert Einhorn, who now work in Hillary Clinton’s State Department—later said that Kim seemed very alert and competent; he knew most of the issues very well, and made decisions without ever consulting the officials around him.

Soon after George W. Bush entered the White House, his secretary of state, Colin Powell said at a press conference that he would pick up on those missile talks where Clinton left off. Bush made it clear that no such talks would take place, and Powell was told to backpedal.

Bush and Dick Cheney were interested in defeating evil, not making deals with it. They not only stopped the talks, but canceled the Agreed Framework. The North Koreans resumed churning out plutonium. Occasionally they sent word, through intermediaries, that they’d like to make a deal. Again, Bush wasn’t interested.

Finally, in October 2006, they detonated a nuclear bomb. Then Bush suddenly did get interested in talks, but it was too late. A deal was finally struck, but it was full of loopholes and had no effect.

When Barack Obama entered the White House, he was initially interested in resuming serious talks with the North Koreans. But now Kim Jong-il was resistant. It soon became clear that talking with the North Koreans was pointless and that the best thing to do was simply to ignore their antics, stop playing their game.

But the North Koreans do have nukes, perhaps as many as a dozen (even though they’ve tested only two bombs, each of very small explosive yield). They are working on missiles (even if all three of their long-range missile tests have fizzled). An unstable country with these sorts of things can’t be ignored for very long. Nor can it simply be bombarded. As the Joint Chiefs made clear to Clinton and Bush, when they entertained the notion, we don’t know where all their facilities are, and they have a few thousand artillery rockets near the South Korean border, which they might fire at Seoul in retaliation, easily killing 1 million or more civilians.

At some point, then, the game will start again. What the stakes and tactics will be, no one knows. Much of what happens will depend on a dynastic inheritor, not yet 30 years of age, about whose character, style, disposition, intelligence, and just about everything else, we know very little. That’s nerve-racking.

If North Korea’s new leader is smart, he will play on that fact. He will, at certain key moments, behave like a loon. And that will raise two further questions: Is the craziness strategic, or is it real? And which of those two possibilities is more dangerous?