The Kim Conundrum

Kim John-un waves to a military parade in Pyongyang in April 2017
For Kim Jong-un, getting the world’s attention is all about personal survival (source: dpa)

North Korea' s leader Kim Jong-un has always been good at making headlines. That is no surprise, since he appears to be a dangerous, cruel, mentally unbalanced and totally unpredictable despot.

There is no doubt, however, that his actions follow a certain brutal logic and self-interest. Understanding this logic makes Mr. Kim’s strategy somewhat more predictable.

In this context, it is useful to assess North Korea’s position. Historically, the country was annexed by Japan in 1910 and only regained its independence after Japan surrendered to the allies at the end of World War II. The north was put under temporary Soviet administration and the south under the U.S. The 38th parallel, chosen arbitrarily, became the divide.

No partition was intended, but after the West and the communist world waged a proxy war on the peninsula in the 1950s, the division became permanent.

Two states have existed ever since, the Republic of Korea in the south and the Democratic People's Republic in the north.

Unification of the peninsula would require regime change in the north, which for now appears quite stable politically


South Korea is now a flourishing economy based on free market principles. It enjoys a working democracy and is a solid ally of the U.S.

North Korea is a backward Stalinist country with the world’s fifth largest army and nuclear capabilities. It threatens South Korea, Japan and the U.S. and has enjoyed Chinese support – although this is fading because China strongly disapproves of Kim Jong-un.

Unification of the peninsula would require regime change in the north, which for now appears quite stable politically. Most of the regime’s enemies have fled or been eliminated. The population is kept “loyal” by a cocktail of propaganda, authoritarian paternalism and terror. Loyalty to the system is essential to a successful career.

Abhorrent idea

Regime change, if it comes, would also probably entail a Korean unification. China, North Korea's big brother, abhors that idea. It would bring one of the U.S.’s closest allies right up to the Chinese border, a short distance from the vital northeastern industrial area and some of the country’s biggest seaports. That’s a no-go for Beijing.

Kim Jong-un wants to stay in power. To do so, he will use every opportunity the geopolitical context in his region affords.

Acquiring nuclear weapons is a huge deterrent to any attempt to end his regime from outside. The collateral damage from Mr. Kim’s retaliation would simply be too big. But provoking the world’s premier superpower, the U.S., and the former colonial power, Japan, helps to impress upon his “subjects” that he and his regime are powerful.

The North Korean dictator is very unlikely to use his nuclear power to attack, because the inevitable U.S. response would mean his immediate demise.

The biggest threat to Mr. Kim comes from his own family


China despises Mr. Kim, but its interest in keeping the two Koreas apart means that it wishes the rule of the Kim dynasty to continue.

These circumstances suggest that the biggest threat to Mr. Kim – who appears to be anything but a figurehead – comes from his own family. No wonder the dictator executed his uncle two years ago and recently arranged the murder of his half-brother.

For China, Kim Jong-un has another value. He ensures that the international community will desperately need Beijing to help contain Pyongyang – a very useful bargaining chip in Chinese foreign and security policy.

Mr. Kim’s behavior last week – testing a new solid-fueled missile but not a nuclear weapon – shows that he does not want to push his luck with President Donald Trump. But the provocations will continue, because they are part of his survival strategy.

Given the tensions between China and the U.S. and its Asian allies, Kim Jong-un’s strategy works. That means he will remain a challenge in the region for quite a while.

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