Press are pawns in Kim’s gameCan the world just take a long, deep breath about North Korea? This isn’t a trick question, but a plea for a moment of sobriety amid Kim Jong-un’s tantrums.
Rather than obsess over his nuclear capabilities, the firepower of his adjectives or the amount of foam at his mouth, let’s consider what Kim is up to. After barely a year running the family business, the Kim Dynasty, the Swiss-educated 30-ish dictator still has a bunch of trigger-happy generals looking over his shoulder. He’s showing them he’s every bit as macho as his dad, the now-deceased Kim Jong-il, if not more.
I’m not defending Kim’s actions; if anyone needs to discover yoga or decaffeinated coffee, it’s him. I’m just pointing out that he’s under intense pressure to wow his military in order to cling to power, and that means lashing out at the world, and the United States and South Korea foremost.
He has certainly grabbed the attention he needs, considering how many headlines he’s generating and how many questions world leaders are getting about the threat North Korea poses. It’s worth considering how much the outside world is enabling him with its fevered news coverage and cold war intrigue.
Perhaps it’s best to view last week’s theatrics as Kim’s version of the Cuban missile crisis. Back in 1962, U.S. President John F. Kennedy came out of his confrontation with the Soviet Union with enhanced political capital. Later this month, after the United States and South Korea end their military drills, Kim can tell his people that North Korea stared down the Great Satan and its sidekick, and both of them blinked. That’s his best-case scenario and probably what he’s angling for. It also gives him cover to advance his nuclear and missile ambitions, including restarting the mothballed Yongbyon reactor.
It is always possible that Kim has suicidal tendencies. But what has the Kim Dynasty, through three generations, spent every waking moment doing? Staying in power and keeping the world out. The idea that Kim and his cronies see any upside to squeezing off a missile, knowing it would spell the end of North Korea, is the stuff of Tom Clancy novels, not realpolitik.
The vibe on the ground in South Korea is instructive. In Seoul, do you know how many people seem to be panicking? None. Folks go to work, kids head to school, buses run on time, newspapers are delivered each morning. There’s no run on banks and supermarket shelves are full. There’s no bull market in bomb shelters, and the hotel where I’m staying isn’t giving out iodide pills. Life goes on.
My impressions are shared by Moody’s Investors Service, which said in an April 2 report, “During this ongoing episode of heightened tensions, optimism over the new President Park Geun-hye administration’s economic policies evidently surpasses fears over Pyongyang’s saber rattling.” South Korea’s stability is ensured by deterrence inherent in its U.S. alliance. The United States has sent F-22 Raptor fighters and B-2 and B-52 bombers to the Korean Peninsula.
It’s always possible Kim will lose his mind and attack South Korea’s 50 million people or even the United States. Yet there may be a good explanation for Kim’s Jekyll-and-Hyde behavior. Rather than cracking up, Kim may fear losing political control.
Fretting over his real or imagined rivals might explain Kim’s bipolar behavior - one moment yucking it up with former basketball star Dennis Rodman, threatening a “sea of fire” and an “arc of destruction” the next.
At the same time that he’s ratcheting up military tensions, Kim is redoubling efforts to reform his impoverished economy. Just consider his move this week to name economic reformist Pak Pong-ju as premier, while China expressed support for a shared economic zone on the North Korean border. Kim’s failure to embark on fundamental economic reform has been disappointing. Is he suddenly trying to make amends?
When Kim Jong-il chose his youngest son as his successor, there was reason for hope. Pundits and policy analysts wondered if the new supreme leader would take North Korea in a more inspired direction. Now, that seems doubtful.
Seen another way, Kim’s reckless provocations probably are aimed at appeasing an impatient military. The only difference is that this is happening in a 24/7 news-cycle world that didn’t exist in 1994 when Kim’s father was building his strongman bona fides. This time around, we in the news media amplify North Korea’s megaphone by breathlessly reporting Kim’s every jingoistic utterance. We are playing into his hands.
The spinmeisters at the slickest public relations firms have nothing on this guy. Kim knows North Korea’s isolation makes its relationship with the outside world asymmetric, giving him a huge advantage. We know little more than what he wants us to.
We can’t ignore Kim, and President Park and U.S. President Barack Obama are right to try to rein him in. The risks of cyberattacks from North Korea, for example, are real, as South Korean broadcasters and banks can attest. But we need to understand Kim’s motives while not indulging in hype and exaggeration.
By William Pesek
*The author is a Bloomberg View columnist.