If North Korea were a normal country, even a normal dictatorship, there would be nothing at all worrisome about the threats and bombast billowing forth from its ludicrous leader, Kim Jong-un. But by design, it is not a normal country. Its power stems almost entirely from its unpredictability; its diplomacy consists of careening in and out of well-marked lanes; its harsh domestic controls are legitimized by a constant state of emergency. Add to this a small nuclear arsenal, an opaque political facade, and a very young new lord whose only claim to the throne is dynastic inheritance—and it’s no wonder that a crisis erupts now and then.
But the latest eruption is rattling nerves more than usual. It’s not because of Kim Jong-un’s histrionics about transforming Seoul into a “sea of fire”; that’s a perennial in the Kim dynasty’s phrasebook of dire threats. Nor is it because he declared the 1953 armistice, which ended the Korean War, “null and void”; his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, the only other past leaders of North Korea, did that a few times as well. Nor is it because he has mobilized the military or ordered the people to prepare for evacuations; this too is par for the totalitarian course.
No, what’s causing many officials and observers to gulp a bit is all that, plus the fact that Kim Jong-un—about 29 and in power for barely a year—is still an unknown quantity. His father, Kim Jong-il, was 52 when he succeeded his father; he’d spent a quarter-century preparing for the ascension in several senior party positions. Kim Jong-un had no political or military experience before taking putative control of the army, the party, and the nation. Kim Jong-il learned the subtleties of managing power, domestically and internationally, from a wily master; scholars and diplomats who study the regime saw continuity in the two leaders’ patterns; Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, held lengthy negotiations with him in 2000 about a possible missile ban, and, according to her aides, who sat in the same room, he had a clear command of the issues. By contrast, Kim Jong-un had little time to learn anything; his behavior is at best hard to read, and at times bewildering.
For example, on Feb. 29, 2012, in part as a test of the new leader’s intentions, President Obama agreed to provide the North Koreans with 240,000 tons of food aid if they suspended all missile and nuclear tests. On April 13, before the food began to be shipped, North Korea launched a missile test. Obama canceled the aid and pushed a resolution through the U.N. Security Council, denouncing the launch as a “serious violation” of international law. Kim responded with a public speech, heralding the missile launch as a display of North Korea’s “military superiority” and vowing to resist imperial pressure. Since then, Kim has launched another satellite into space (successfully) and conducted two underground tests of atomic bombs—prompting more condemnations from the Security Council.
In one sense, this too is nothing new. The elder Kims also defied the U.N. and other outsiders when it served their interest, in part because they knew they could count on neighboring China to keep trade and aid flowing. (Beijing’s leaders have recently wagged their fingers at Pyongyang’s transgressions, but little more.) The elders, though, would shrewdly manipulate the enemy’s anxieties. They would make a threat, and wait for the enemy (the United States, South Korea, the U.N., or some combination of the above) to offer a bribe in exchange for their forbearance. They would take the bribe—and they’d forbear. But this new Kim took the promise of a bribe—then went ahead and carried out the threat anyway, even before the payment, in this case desperately needed food, came through. What the hell?
This is the question that officials and analysts are asking: Does Kim Jong-un know how to play his family’s game? It’s always been an odious game, but in the old days, when the father and grandfather were around, it would end with peace, at least for a while, if the west played along. American diplomats learned how to play the game, though testily, during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton; some of them finally got the hang of it (though way too late) in the last two years of George W. Bush. But now, the rules of the game, even the contours of the game board, are unclear. Does Kim Jong-un believe his ridiculous rhetoric? Or is he playing it as a tactic, like his elders did, though quite a lot more bunglingly? In either case, he seems to be overplaying his hand. He seems to be miscalculating. (Could he really have believed that engaging with Dennis Rodman might endear him to America’s No. 1 basketball fan? He might have!) And miscalculations, as much history tells us, can lead to war.