Meet the new Kim, same as the old Kim

I’ve been resisting the temptation to write something about North Korea because, despite the deluge of coverage over the last few days, I don’t really think anything much has changed.

North Korea actually repudiated the Korean War armistice four years ago. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time:

If you’re developing a weapon to use in a surprise attack on your enemies (or surreptitiously on-sell it to terrorists), you’d be crazy to advertise the fact. But if your purpose is to deter, then you want everyone to know about it. Kim Jong-Il’s openness about his nukes supports rather than detracts from his claim that their purpose is defensive. …

Kim is most definitely eccentric, but there’s no evidence that he’s behaving irrationally. His nuclear program is an entirely rational response to the incentives he faces; if we want him to give it up, we’re going to have to change those incentives.

Since then, Kim the third has succeeded Kim the second, but otherwise the fundamentals remain the same. Nuclear weapons and the associated fiery rhetoric serve two obvious purposes for North Korea: firstly as a deterrent against any American attack, and secondly as blackmail to try to extract concessions – mostly aid – from the west. Neither raises any likelihood that they would actually be used.

It may also be that Kim Jong-un, being still relatively young and untried, is trying to build credibility with his generals and party stalwarts (but for a long time people said the same thing about his father, stressing his need to measure up to the belligerent standard set by his father). Crossing the line that would result in his country being wiped out would not, however, be a good way of doing that.

In fact, while Kim’s rhetoric sounds alarming, it’s entirely consistent with past practice. As the White House press secretary put it overnight, “this pattern of bellicose rhetoric is not new, it is familiar.” There’s no evidence of actual willingness to start a war: “we are not seeing changes to the North Korean military posture, such as large-scale mobilizations and positioning of forces.”

For those who missed it, it’s worth having a look at last night’s 7.30 on the ABC. Professor Andrei Lankov, a world expert on North Korea, patiently explained the logic of Kim’s actions, the way they follow a predictable pattern and are best simply ignored. Until the last question, when Tracy Bowden asked him if Kim might have to “walk the walk” on going to war and he seemed to lose patience a little:

Why? Is he stupid? Is he suicidal? Is he a zealot? Does he believe in any ideology? Does he want to destroy the world in the name of God or whoever? Of course not. He loves his life. He loves his wife. He loves his cars and his toys. He’s not going to start a war he has no chance to win.

For all the stories about North Korea’s million-strong army and its artillery trained on Seoul, this is the fundamental point: its chance of military victory against the US is zero. No high degree of reasoning or military know-how is required to realise that. Kim and his cadres are insulated from reality, but not that insulated.

The only thing that could prompt a decision to go to war would be if Kim believed an attack from the west was imminent. That’s why escalating the rhetorical conflict carries risks.

It would be better for the west to treat Kim’s latest provocations as no big deal, to offer comprehensive guarantees for North Korea’s security, but make no aid concessions for anything short of verifiable nuclear disarmament.

And in the meantime it would probably help if the media shuffled this story down towards the bottom of the pile.



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