What Do Chicago, Guam, and ‘America’s Heart’ Have in Common?
Easy: all three have been touted as immediate targets “any moment now” for North Korea’s first nuclear-armed missile strike by Kim Jong-un, the most supreme leader of all things North Korean, the wunderkind of communist monarchy, third of his name, warden of the Far East, and Protector from Imperialism.
The tale of how a shy, slightly overweight teenager educated at a Swiss boarding school succeeds the throne of the world’s staunchest communist dictatorship, and manages to cling to it is indeed one of “mad guy diplomacy” blackmailing the world, albeit by a rational man for rational reasons.
Where Communist Monarchy Is No Oxymoron
While the ideology of communism is technically against the hereditary rule as well as exploitation, denigration, and a whole bunch of vices that showed their face throughout human history, North Korea has proven to be just that: a communist monarch where all-out power has been passed down from grandfather to father to son.
Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s supreme leader since 2011, after the passing of his father, Kim Jong-Il (r. 1994 – 2011), who in turn succeeded Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung (r. 1948 – 1994), the founder of the North Korean communist regime with Soviet aid after the end of World War II.
Clinging to Power to Save Your Own Life
The logic of autocracy, nowadays found outside the West but historically all over the globe, is that once in power, you have to keep it if you want to keep your wealth and head. A peaceful handover of power is very rare: a leader backed by a small privileged class has no choice but cling to the “throne” at all costs. With “brotherly” communist regimes collapsing in Eastern Europe and transforming in Asia in the early 1990s, survival by staying in power became an even more pressing concern for North Korea’s leadership. That’s played out in both international and intra-family relations: in February 2017, Kim Jong-un appears to have ordered the assassination of his exiled older half-brother, good-natured Kim Jong-Nam, who got poisoned with a chemical weapon at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia.
Ditch Obscurity, Go for Brinkmanship
North Korea’s communist regime is often described as the world’s most secretive dictatorship. Yet, while its domestic life has been just that, instead of seeking to lay low in international affairs, as other dictatorships chose to do in the changing landscapes of the 1990s and 2000s, North Korea has been doing precisely the opposite.
Both former supreme leader, Kim Jong-Il (r. 1994-2011), the second of his name, and his son Kim Jong-un have been extremely shrill, constantly lashing out against “imperialism”, their favorite, the USA, their actual brothers from South Korea, their former colonial master Japan, and at times even their buddies from China and Russia (for abandoning true communism).
Speak Shrilly and Carry Big Nuclear & Missile Programs
Various sorts of nasty dictators do their best to bash the West all the time – from the comfort of their compounds to the tribune of the UN General Assembly. Most of those are easily dismissed by Western diplomats and the wider international community as little more than an annoyance. The case with North Korea’s raucous rhetoric, however, has been vastly different: it has been backed up with large-scale programs for the development of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles needed to deliver them across continents. (All the way to the Windy City… if need be, as per Kim Jong-un’s needs).
Bridging the Cold War to the ‘Regime Change Era’
North Korea’s regime first began developing ballistic missiles, the ultimate weapon for delivering destructive payloads to your enemies, back in 1976, in the mature stage of the Cold War, naturally with massive backing from the Soviet Union. Its development of nuclear weapons started in the early 1990s, not to mention the stockpiles of other weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), biological and chemical, it had amassed earlier. As a concern of North Korea’s WMDs has dragged to the present day, it has “bridged” the Cold War times with the “Regime Change Era”, in which some Kim Jong-un’s likes – Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi – were toppled with US help. Both had failed to build nukes.
Since its first ballistic missile test in 1984, North Korea’s regime has carried out a total of 117 tests of strategic missiles. And, take notice, 15 of those were under grand-dad Kim Il-sung, 16 under daddy Kim Jong-il, and a whopping 86 under Kim III, since 2011.
2017, the first year in office of US President Donald Trump, was especially intensive, with 16 ballistic missile tests, some failed, some successful. In July 2017, it tested two missiles claimed to be the feared ICBMs (Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles), with an estimated range of 10,000 kilometers, enough to reach not just Guam, Hawaii, or the US West Coast but also all the way to Chicago, although experts have not been able to verify that information.
In 2003, North Korea unilaterally dropped out of the NPT, the international Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, an international law agreement preventing just about everybody from acquiring nuclear weapons. That was a year after then US President George W. Bush had labeled the North Korean regime part of “an axis of evil” together with Iran and Iraq.
North Korea’s dictatorship started testing nuclear weapons in 2006 and has conducted a total of six tests so far, the last one in September 2017. That was when the Kim Jong-un regime claimed it had built the advanced hydrogen bomb, and that it could be mounted on its intercontinental missiles. That claim also hasn’t been independently verified.
Game Changer or Not
The still unverified capability of North Korea’s regime to strike the United States with a ballistic missile carrying a hydrogen bomb payload has been deemed a game changer by some: the US has failed to prevent it, and it is the first time what can be described as a medium-sized power, at best, could threaten America’s mainland territory with WMDs.
Yet, seeing that development, if authentic at all, as a game changer is not entirely justified. The US has been the target of Soviet / Russian and Chinese nuclear-armed missiles since the Cold War and has remained safe through its capacity to launch an equally or more destructive retaliatory counterstrike, the doctrine of MAD, Mutually Assured Destruction.
So the fears that Kim Jong-un, in some mind-boggling fit of his “mad guy diplomacy”, might order a nuclear missile strike against the United States began to surface especially in 2017. Couldn’t communist emperor Kim just decide to punish the “perfidious imperialist”, the source of all evil on Earth and beyond, the US of A? He could.
Except he won’t. With the possible exception of Adolf Hitler, Kim and the likes want to enjoy their power and the incredible luxury they have secured for themselves through that power. They can’t do that if they are dead, or their fiefdoms get destroyed. They might use WMDs but only as a last resort, if they truly think they are going down. If they face regime change.
The logical rational unwillingness of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to be the first to use nukes against the US (if he indeed can), or at least against neighboring US allies South Korea and Japan, however, have not prevented him from mad guy posturing. That has been the gist of Kim Jong-un’s “mad guy diplomacy” – posing as an irrational dead-ender willing to wreak havoc upon the West in North America and Asia any moment now.
Strategists can do rational calculations over at the Pentagon or the US State Department but even they might question their analyses of an autocrat’s true intentions when faced with a cannonade of weapons tests coupled with fiery rhetoric, as was the case in 2017.
Fearing Regime Change Like the Devil
Regime change – the US policy of seeking to remove unfriendly autocratic leaders in foreign countries – has been what’s given the Kim dynasty and their generals nightmares over the years. Consider this telling quote from North Korea’s official mouthpiece from July 2017:
“Should the U.S. dare to show even the slightest sign of attempt to remove our supreme leadership, we will strike a merciless blow at the heart of the US with our powerful nuclear hammer, honed and hardened over time… [The CIA chief Mike Pompeo’s remarks] have gone over the line, and it has now become clear that the ultimate aim of the Trump administration … is the regime change.”
Is Regime Change Near China and Russia a No-Go?
So why hasn’t the United States really tried regime change in North Korea? First of all, the very notion of regime change, a favorite of the Second Bush Administration, is questioned by many as doing more harm than good (check out today’s Iraq, Libya, you name it), including by boosting anti-Americanism. Second, sure, there is the threat of Kim launching whatever WMDs he has against US, Japanese, and South Korean territory, and doing massive damage.
Third, North Korea’s case is especially complicated because it borders both China and Russia. While these factors won’t prevent the US from attempting regime change or just responding to an attack or provocation by Pyongyang, those scenarios would have complex ramifications.
Getting to Hang out With Trump
The Kims’ “mad guy diplomacy” has been “successful”, meaning it has so far secured the survival of their regime. Not just that: the leader of the North Korean regime that has been spewing lava against the United States for decades even got a meeting with the “leader of the free world” and “most powerful man on earth”, the President of the United States. Twice.
He had to wait until Donald Trump got elected President, and Trump seems to have some weird unorthodox foreign policy interpretations, to say the least, but still. Before that, in 2017, Trump had sent three US aircraft carrier battle groups near the Korean Peninsula to back existing US and Korean forces in a “mad guy” brinkmanship of his own.
But to No Avail
Trump and Kim first met in Singapore in July 2018, then again in Vietnam in February 2019. Despite the niceties exchanged, the two summits have produced little tangible results in terms defusing the long-existing standoff. The second summit was even cut short because of North Korea’s overly bold demands: that US sanctions against the regime in Pyongyang be dropped.
Unpleasant rhetoric by both Kim and Trump resumed as usual after both summits. It is unclear how much new meetings can achieve since while the Kim regime is seeking guarantees to its survival, with the lifting of sanctions as a secondary goal, it is hardly prepared to offer everything the US would ask in exchange.
No Giving Up the Nukes
While the Kim regime might be willing to offer “partial de-nuclearization”, halting of the constant weapons tests, and toning down of its mad guy rhetoric, it would simply never agree to surrender its nukes and other WMDs altogether – regardless of the regime survival guarantees sweetened with economic aid the US might offer, Kim Jong-un’s autocracy can never be sure of Washington’s intentions – both now and down the road. An autocrat unwilling to end up like Saddam or Gaddafi would cling to their nuclear weapons till the very end.
The Toll on the People, Unification Pipe Dreams
Not unlike any communist dictatorship in history, North Korea has been oblivious to the plight of its people that it has caused itself. According to the UN, North Korea is one of the world’s largest neglected humanitarian crisis, with 70% of the population relying on government food aid to survive. Against that backdrop, musings in Seoul and elsewhere about the possibility that South and North Korea might one day unite as West and East Germany once did – despite the horrendous costs to the richer side – remain little more than pipe dreams.
Kim Jong-un’s mad guy diplomacy has so far served him well – he is alive and in power. Little is likely to change in the near to short term barring some unexpected cataclysm such as China deciding to abandon Pyongyang, or the regime somehow losing domestic control.