Theodore Roosevelt’s approach to foreign policy was to “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” Kim Jong-un seems to have confused the two.
North Korea’s rhetoric is nothing new – in fact, it’s become de rigueur for Pyongyang to threaten war whenever it wants an increase in its foreign aid allowance, much like a petulant child. The current level of tensions is, however, unprecedented. What is driving North Korea’s actions? Evidence suggests that Kim Jong-un’s blustering rhetoric may be part of a carefully concerted plan to legitimize his leadership of North Korea, strengthen his hold over the Korean People’s Army, and improve Pyongyang’s bargaining position vis-à-vis foreign aid. I also think that there’s another, much simpler reason – it seems to work.
When Kim Jong-un came into power at the young age of 27, reports out of North Korea claimed that he was considered far too young and inexperienced for the job. By the time his father had assumed power at the age of either 52 or 53, Kim Jong Il was already well enmeshed in the North Korean government – his ability to rule was never questioned. Kim Jong-un came into power as an untested leader of a country that prizes military strength above all. Initially, rumours abounded that his uncle would act as regent until he was deemed ready to govern. The government wasted no time building up his cult of personality, though, awarding him the rank of Marshal of the Republic, staging photo opportunities, and even providing him a wife (to give the impression of maturity).
Simple titles and empty gestures alone are not, however, going to win KJU the much-needed respect of the Korean Army. He also has to generate a plausible rationale for his rule. Thus, images of him conferring with military officials, inspecting the Army’s “latest technology”, and plotting nuclear targets (he harbours particular antipathy for Austin, TX) have flooded the media in recent weeks. The North Korean propaganda machine routinely puts out images of a Kim Jong-un being loved and respected by the people. Yet he still blusters and deliberately ratchets up tensions. Why? There are a few key reasons.
Kim Jong-un has “cried wolf” far too often, and no one is listening anymore. He has to up the ante in order to get the same result, like how a drug addict needs a stronger dose to feel the same result. He needs to shore up his domestic support, so he is artificially creating a “rally-around-the-flag” effect. But above all, his blustering and rhetoric seem to work. The West gives him what he wants to get him to stop. North Korea wants nuclear weapons, and the West pays him not to. His people love him for providing basic services. Then, Pyongyang secretly develops nuclear weapons anyway. The UN and US subsequently levy sanctions on the regime, cutting off aid. KJU blames the West for North Korea’s poverty, mobilizes the KPA, and threatens missile tests, inviting further sanctions and the movement of US forces into the region. KJU recently went so far as to raise a missile to launch position (only to lower it later). It’s a circular pattern that ends up boosting Kim Jong-un’s image and allows the KPA to reinforce the rationale for its existence. By deploying THAAD and two Aegis anti-missile ships into the region, the US is doing exactly what Kim Jong-un wants – to show that the United States is threatening North Korea and that the people need KJU and his KPA to protect them.
It’s telling that one op-ed noted that press reports tended to be more alarmist the further away from the Korean Peninsula they are. While the American, Russian, Japanese, South Korean, and even Chinese governments are incensed and prepared for conflict, the South Korean people are more bored than alarmed by KJU’s antics. They know that North Korea is more bark than bite. Despite appearances, Kim Jong-un is no fool. Any military action between North Korea and US-South Korean forces would be laughably one-sided and comically short. Furthermore, using a nuclear weapon would be game-over for North Korea. The humanitarian devastation would cost them all global sympathy; China would fully abandon KJU, and US-South Korean forces would have free reign to invade North Korea – China might even help.
Kim Jong-un is deliberately ratcheting up tensions to solidify his leadership position, improve Pyongyang’s negotiating position in foreign aid talks, and we’re falling for it. The United States needs to stop feeding the cycle that Kim Jong-un has created. We need to demonstrate to Pyongyang that this type of strategy simply will not work anymore. For far too long we’ve shown him that if he threatens, we’ll pay him to stop. That cannot be US policy anymore. We have to break the cycle of manipulation if we are to achieve lasting change in the Korean Peninsula.