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.
A few other factors aggravate this situation. In response to Kim’s outbursts, South Korean president Park Geun-hye not only warned him that she will retaliate to any act of aggression, but also threatened to take action against the north pre-emptively if the situation warranted. Meanwhile, influential South Koreans are wondering aloud whether it might be time for South Korea to build its own atomic arsenal.*
In recent years, North and South Korean naval forces have clashed a half-dozen times over a disputed maritime border known as the Northern Limits Line, resulting in over 300 deaths on both sides. The most recent episode, in November 2010, resulted in the sinking of a South Korean ship, killing 46 sailors onboard. The South Korean government held back; the conflict gradually settled. If a similar conflict broke out today, President Park might feel compelled to retaliate with greater force; Kim might feel compelled to respond in kind; and onward and upward the fighting could escalate.
Kim’s motives are further clouded by what seems to be his own growing domestic crisis. North Korea may be the world’s most closed society, but it’s not as cloistered as it once was. The past decade has seen limited, but very popular experiments with commercial markets and considerable cross-border traffic with China. Defectors have told U.S. officials that the North Korean people—probably not a majority, but still a growing number—are aware of the glaring contrast between their own lives and the rest of the world. Faced with this looming crisis, a totalitarian regime can open up further—a course that can trigger the regime’s demise (cf. the Soviet Union)—or it can sound the alarms louder still and try to convince the people that they are in constant danger from outside attack, a state of mind that can trigger pressures for attacking pre-emptively.
Some doubt that Kim would take any such action in the next few weeks, as two major U.S.-South Korean military exercises—annual affairs, scheduled routinely for around this time—are taking place: Foal Eagle, a joint field exercise involving about 10,000 American troops, most of them deployed from outside the region; and Key Resolve, a naval training exercise that includes about 3,000 American personnel. North Korea, which is always invited to observe but always refuses, mounts its own exercises around the same time. Restraints are tightly held on both sides: these are demonstrations of solidarity, theatrics of power; nobody wants them to devolve into actual conflict … usually. Again, who knows what Kim Jong-un wants?
Daniel Sneider, associate director of the Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center at Stanford University, puts it this way: “North Korea provocations are very calculated. They tend to stop short of what would force serious escalation.” But the context of these provocations—the uncertainty of what lies behind them and of what they might further provoke—changes the calculus. “The talk tends to be tougher than the action,” Sneider says. “Still it’s worth being scared.”
Correction, March 13, 2013: This article originally stated that South Korean President Park Geun-hye has mused over whether her country should build its own atomic arsenal. The sentence has been updated to reflect that many influential South Koreans have speculated on this point. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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