Earlier this month, the government of North Korea, presided over by Kim Jong-un, test fired its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in what is being reported as a significant step towards the country’s goal of possessing the capability to launch a nuclear attack on the continental United States. Conducted on the Fourth of July, the only thing more capable of broadcasting North Korea’s intentions than the test itself may have been a state-run newspaper’s threat to “turn self-destructive U.S. into a pile of ash” if Washington ever attempted to strike first.
For those even passingly familiar with the Pyongyang regime, this sort of behavior is not exactly new. Between their (to put it mildly) aggressive bluster, and their other outlandish behavior over the decades, the North Korean government has long been viewed as an entity that has lost its last marble; a regime that cannot be reasoned with, because they do not have the capacity to reason.
While it’s understandable that an observer would come to adopt the fairly simple notion that North Korea acts crazy because its ruler is crazy (after all, mentally unstable autocrats gaining control of entire countries and their nuclear arsenals seems to have become the hip new trend over the last year), an alternative, and somewhat more comforting, theory is that the regime is far more rational then initial appearances suggest.
In short, the alternative view is that North Korea's regime is not crazy, but simply pretends to be crazy to get what it wants.
What does Kim Jong-un, and by extension North Korea, want? The simple answer: survival. Most states want to continue to exist, and to retain control of the territory and resources they start out with. What’s more, when a person becomes head of a state, they often develop the desire to remain the head of that state. This tends to be even more so when the state is a dictatorship; in this case the new dictator actually can remain in power indefinitely. However, if this is the case, why would Kim think that threatening to destroy the United States, the last remaining superpower on Earth, would be more likely to protect his regime and his control over it? To that question, there are several different possible explanations.
Changing the Conversation
To begin, it’s important to remember that Pyongyang has a dismal human rights record. The temporary ban on weddings across the country, which the government enacted last year, is probably one of the less unsettling instances of this. As such, under different circumstances, the plight of North Korea’s common people would likely be at the top of the agenda for any policy discussions about the country.
By threatening nuclear destruction against the most powerful nation on the planet, the discussion changes to one of America’s survival, shifting all of the attention away from North Korea’s internal issues. As such, instead of talking about how to alter North Korea’s domestic policies or overthrowing the regim, the world is mostly talking about how to make sure Kim Jong-un doesn’t blow up the planet. If nothing else, this gives him a freer hand to do what he likes to his people.
Another explanation is that all the saber rattling is not meant to start a war, but to prevent one. The West has acquired a reputation (fairly or otherwise) of overthrowing governments that it disapproves of. The fall of Saddam Hussein might be the clearest example of this from contemporary history, and it is far from the only example. In Kim’s mind, to appear weak in the eyes of the United States and its allies could be an open invitation to either military invasion or support of a rebel movement capable of toppling him. By doing everything possible to puff himself up, from the building of nukes to the execution of family members, he may be attempting to head this off at the pass.
Strengthening his Hand
Finally, there is the possibility that all this posturing on Kim’s part is an attempt to give himself a stronger position at the negotiating table. Some believe that one of Kim’s main goals is to negotiate a deal with the United States that would end economic sanctions, relax the military containment policy, and lend Pyongyang international recognition. North Korea threatening to destroy America may simply be the opening gambit in an attempt to get the most it can in a deal with the U.S. while giving nothing in exchange other than an assurance that it will not start a war it was never truly planning to start in the first place.
In all honesty, reading the mind of Kim Jong-un is no more feasible than reading anyone else’s. It is entirely possible that he really is a crazed tyrant with no grip on reality, and that the closest we can realistically come to minimizing the damage he can do is embarking on a war that will leave an entire peninsula destroyed and tens of millions dead, along with tens of thousands of American soldiers. Or, we can hope that Kim wants to stay alive as much as the rest of us do, that he is as fearful of all-out war as the rest of us are, and that he is willing, on some level, to talk with his adversaries to find a way out.
Whatever the rational option is, I’d prefer to go with the latter.
By Jesse Berman