Can we take a break from the rhetoric?
Let’s assume for a moment that Kim Jong Un is not unhinged, or engaged in a suicide mission, as President Trump declared this week. Perhaps he is focused on a long, if risky bid for survival and control of the Korean peninsula.
This isn’t really much of a stretch. It’s true that North Korea and the Kim family dynasty seem fundamentally weird — and therefore irrational — to American eyes. There’s the cult of personality and the bombastic rhetoric. The Mao suit and haircut don’t help.
Experts questioned Kim’s chops when he took over for his father at an age when many young Americans are still living with their parents. Some thought he might be pushed aside by those who were older and wiser, and Trump still thinks Kim can be rolled by Beijing. Instead, the young North Korea leader thumbs his nose at the Chinese, and those older and wiser figures are now yes-men or corpses.
That in no way excuses Kim’s brutality or downplays the danger of catastrophic miscalculation. But he has shown purpose and staying power. If the U.S. and its allies are to head off what’s been called a “Cuban missile crisis in slow motion,” it’s important to try to understand what Kim wants.
What’s the point of his nuclear program?
Problem is, no one’s really sure. But squeezed among major powers in a place familiar with war and invasion, Kim must certainly be aware of history. For more than 60 years, the United States has been the only adversary worth worrying about. The U.S. prevented Kim’s grandfather from taking over the peninsula. And while the Korean War ended in a cease-fire, there still is no peace treaty, and Washington keeps tens of thousands of soldiers in South Korea.
From North America, those troops appear to be there clearly for defensive purposes. From Pyongyang, not so much. Plus, when the U.S. goes on about democracy and human rights, it looks an awful lot like encouraging regime change.
If you’re suspicious of the U.S. anyway, the actions of U.S. presidents over the past 20 years probably make you very nervous. As Evan Osnos notes in a recent New Yorker piece, in the last months of the Clinton Administration, U.S. officials felt Kim’s father was close to agreeing to a freeze on long-range missile tests. But Clinton pursued a Middle East peace agreement instead.
George W. Bush declined to affirm a declaration of “no hostile intent” toward North Korea, and declared the country to be part of an “axis of evil.” Saddam Hussein, who was thought to be hiding weapons of mass destruction (but wasn’t), was attacked, overthrown and executed.
And under President Obama, Moammar Kadafy — who gave up his WMD program — was the target of a bombing campaign before being caught and killed by his Libyan foes.
Now there’s Trump. In addition to the increasing tension with North Korea, the president appears close to throwing out the nuclear deal Obama reached with Iran.
The takeaway for Kim: If you give up your nukes and cut a deal with the U.S., are you really any more secure?
Having a nuclear weapon, the capability of delivering it, and some ambiguity about when you would use it, may look to be an equalizer. The U.S. could certainly “totally destroy” North Korea, as Trump warned Tuesday. But at what cost?
Besides, nukes might help you in your long-term goals on the Korean peninsula. In the worst case, Kim could attack the South with conventional, chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Perhaps a more likely scenario is trying to slowly draw the South out of the U.S. orbit.
South Korea already lives under constant threat from the North. As this chilling analysis of U.S. war planning makes clear, thousands (if not tens or hundreds of thousands) of South Koreans — plus many U.S. soldiers — could be killed in very short order if Kim attacked. He would lose any war and almost certainly his family’s dynasty and his own life. But the overall loss of life would be unimaginable — and the aftermath probably messier than Iraq.
With a nuclear weapon involved, South Korea becomes more of a hostage. It’s not hard to see how Kim could mix threats and bluster with policies appealing to the widespread desire for reunification. The U.S. would have to think twice about shielding South Korea if its own cities were at even a small risk of nuclear attack.
There’s one final — and perhaps misleading — lesson from Kim’s grandfather about dealing with the United States, and comes courtesy (again) of Osnos’ piece in the New Yorker: In 1968, the standoff over North Korea’s seizure of the USS Pueblo persuaded Kim Il Sung that the Americans didn’t want to fight again. Instead of attacking, the U.S. apologized for spying.
So maybe Kim is betting that the U.S. will conclude that the least bad option is to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea, and will reconcile itself to the long slog of containment. But that is a big, risky bet.