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

“North Korea’s Deadly Dictator” mixes together two main narratives.

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.

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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.