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'Frontline' on North Korea: ruling-family weirdness and the desire for nukes

The admirable PBS documentary series “Frontline” premiered a new documentary Wednesday night about the North Korean ruling family and their nuclear ambitions. It’s titled “North Korea’s Deadly Dictator,” and it mixes together two main narratives, one about the unimaginable weirdness of the North Korean ruling family, and the other about their recent breakthroughs toward achieving nuclear weapons capability. The two themes are both interesting, each in its own bizarre way, but they have little to tie them together.

The first half focuses on the assassination of Kim Jong-Nam on Feb. 13 of this year, almost certainly by his younger half-brother Kim Jong-Un, the current “supreme leader” of that strange nation. The second half focuses on North Korea’s recent progress toward nukes, and speculates on its purpose.

Kim Jong-Nam was the eldest son of the previous “supreme leader,” Kim Jong-Il, and was once considered a likely successor. But he turned into something of a playboy who lived mostly out of the country and fell from favor.

He died under mysterious circumstances while walking through the airport at Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. He was poisoned with the nerve agent VX, which was administered by two young women who (I warned you this was a strange tale) had no idea they were administering a lethal agent but had been recruited, presumably by North Korean agents, and thought they were participating in some kind of prank.

The Frontline film assumes that this was the work of the North Korean intelligence assets at the behest of Kim Jong-Un, who already held full power in Pyongyang. Kim Jong-Un either worried that his half-brother would someday represent a threat or even (the film suggests) was worried that the CIA might adopt Kim Jong-Nam as a pretender to the throne and use him to make trouble.

The second half of the hourlong “Frontline” switches rather suddenly to the question of why Kim Jong-Un wants nukes, although I will confess that to me the answer seems obvious.

New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos (playing himself in the film) lays out the two basic theories, offense or defense, but I frankly can’t think of any reason other than a glorious suicide wish that Kim Jong-Un or any other North Korean leader would want to initiate a first-use of nuclear weapons either against South Korea or against the United States.

Any first use by North Korea would result in a retaliatory strike of unimaginable destruction by the United States, which has far more and far better bombs and would have no reason (that I can think of) to hold back once North Korea had decided to nuke either the U.S. or its South Korean ally.

On the other hand, it actually makes sense to me that Kim Jong-Un would believe that having a second-strike capability could and probably would be a successful deterrent against a U.S. first strike. Osnos describes that logic this way:

They (North Korea) looked at what happened to Saddam Hussein and Muhammar Khaddaffi and they decided that will never be us. We will never give up our [nuclear] weapons and therefore no one will be able to attack us.

It’s true that Osnos lays out the other theory, that the goal is to “bring South Korea to its knees and drive the U.S. off the Korean peninsula.” But personally, I can’t see how that gets them anything other than destroyed. The U.S. has many troops in South Korea, and Japan, and Guam, and long-standing alliances.

If North Korea launched, or made a credible threat to launch nukes at South Korea they would not only be destroying their own fairly small peninsula but would be ensuring a counterattack with the much larger and more advanced nuclear assets of the United States. If North Korea’s leadership was insane or stupid enough to think this would work, they wouldn’t have lasted this long.

I should have gotten this post up before the premiere on Wednesday, but KTCI Channel 17 in the Twin Cities will show it again Friday night at 9 or check your PBS schedule for more showing,  or you can access the film here.

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Comments (3)

Why is Kim Jong-Un considered

Why is Kim Jong-Un considered weird? He looks weird but that may be attributed to our racism and prejudice… His behavior, on the other hand, is anything but weird: As with any other dictator, his main goal is to stay at power by any means…

“Any first use by North Korea would result in a retaliatory strike of unimaginable destruction by the United States, which has far more and far better bombs and would have no reason (that I can think of) to hold back once North Korea had decided to nuke either the U.S. or its South Korean ally.” Of course there will be a reason – innocent people will die… which is true.

“It’s true that Osnos lays out the other theory, that the goal is to “bring South Korea to its knees and drive the U.S. off the Korean peninsula.” But personally, I can’t see how that gets them anything other than destroyed.” Very simple: they demand that South and North Korea unite (peacefully, of course) under Kim Jong-Un’s leadership or else… And the US must pull the troops out or LA, NY, and SF will be destroyed. Which president will risk major cities’ destruction to protect South Korea… especially if unification will be done peacefully as opposed to a war in which innocent people will, again, die. And Kim Jong-Un will even promise to keep some freedoms in South Korea… for a while, at least, just like in Hong Kong… Would America have tried to liberate Kuwait had Saddam had means of delivering a nuclear strike against NY or Washington, DC?

Actually, Eric

We have our own ruling-family weirdness: threats of unimaginable destruction; taunting like a junior high kid; "save your breath, Rex"; and now we have a "calm before the storm" at some photo-op with generals. I can only imagine that much of the rest of the world thinking of these two, Jong-Un and the Moron, as equal threats and equally weird.

There's a casualness about his attitude towards the potential deaths of millions that's unsettling. Trump is either willing to play this game because he thinks he's clever enough to get Jong-Un into giving up, or he's crazy enough to want to goad North Korea into doing something so he has an excuse. The human suffering factor doesn't enter into it.

Another issue

…I'd have liked to see addressed in Eric's piece is what, for lack of a better or more coherent name, I'll call the "third strike" possibility.

In Eric's view, or that of the "Frontline" producers (I've not yet seen the program), what is the likely response of either/both Russia and/or China to nuclear retaliation by the U.S. to a North Korean nuclear attack on South Korea or Japan? I understand that some sort of weird death wish might provoke the current North Korean ruler to actually use whatever nuclear capability he might have against his neighbors to the south, and that such use would surely produce a nuclear response from the U.S., but then there's the inevitable (at least in my mind) "Now what?" moment.

Maybe it would depend upon the breadth and severity of the American response, and I'd guess there'd be some fast and VERY sincere phone calls from Mr. Tillerson to leaders of both Russia and China, assuring them that we mean no harm to THEIR countries, but the Current Occupant has already demonstrated that he has foreign policy skills that make me look like Benjamin Disraeli, and he could easily undermine and/or overrule our Secretary of State in this context, to the horror, no doubt, of everyone on the White House staff and in Congress save the True Believers.