Earlier today, a North Korean diplomat at a United Nations conference on nuclear disarmament threatened South Korea with “final destruction,” drawing sharp rebukes from the ambassadors present. Last week, North Korea tested a nuclear weapon — the third such test in seven years — and received universal international condemnation, including from its largest ally, the People’s Republic of China. Such behavior would be unacceptable from any other country, and yet from North Korea it is almost expected. Why?
The easiest explanations for North Korea’s behavior, to which uninformed commentators spring first, fall within two broad categories. The first is that North Korea is simply evil. George W. Bush most notably described North Korea as a member of the “Axis of Evil,” and not undeservedly so. North Korea is a carceral state ruled by a totalitarian regime in which virtually all human rights and civil liberties are suppressed, in which thousands die during the country’s periodic famines, and in which 200,000 political prisoners languish in concentration camps. Christopher Hitchens, who visited North Korea in 2010, even called it “a nation of racist dwarves” — the famines had resulted in such widespread malnutrition that the average North Korean stood six inches shorter than his or her South Korean counterpart. While the North Korean regime is one of the most horrific and brutal in human history, descriptors like “evil” don’t shed further light on its international posturing.
While describing North Korea as evil is simply unhelpful, describing its leadership as “crazy” — the other common reaction by the commentariat — is flat-out false. Mental illness in dictators is notoriously unreliable, and is often rejected outright by historians when assessing the motives of Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein, “bad doesn’t equal mad.” Furthermore, dismissing them as madmen ignores the complexity and strategy underlying their actions, even if those actions are unconscionable.
Calling dictators crazy reflects a broader cultural misunderstanding of their power structures. That style of amoral leadership is anathema to most preconceived notions of government and the state. Central to liberal democracy is the idea that the state derives its legitimacy from the will of the people. Over the past three centuries, this concept has evolved from an Anglo-American eccentricity into the dominant political ideology on the planet. In 2013, it is an idea to which even authoritarian regimes in China and Russia must pay lip service, albeit through rigged elections, oft-ignored constitutions, and inconsistent protections of human rights and civil liberties.
Not so in Pyongyang, where the Kim dynasty and its inner circle have fashioned the entire North Korean society along two intertwined illusions: first, that invasion and conquest by the United States and other Western powers is perpetually imminent, and second, that Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather before him, is the only thing standing between the ravenous imperialist hordes and the valiant North Korean people. This worldview, propagated by a steady and relentless domestic propaganda campaign, forms the ideological basis for Kim Jong-un’s rule.
To maintain that authoritarian status quo, Kim Jong-un must feed the illusions upon which it rests. To that end, he has taken a highly-aggressive stance towards South Korea and the United States to both justify his regime’s existence and to consecrate his nascent leadership of it. To demonstrate boldness despite Kim Jong-il’s failing health, North Korea launched an artillery bombardment of South Korean territory in 2010 in their most brazen attack by the North since 1953. To demonstrate strength as tensions rise across East Asia over the last six months, North Korea tested nuclear weapons last week — the ultimate symbol of scientific and military might. To demonstrate resolve by an untested Kim Jong-un, the regime’s aggressive overtones towards its neighbors have reached a fever pitch over the past three years, coinciding with the natural instability brought about by the transition from the ailing Kim Jong-il to his 28-year-old son.
These provocations are not undertaken without careful consideration. Kim Jong-un and his inner circle know that if they actually started a war against the United States and its allies, they would lose. Despite latent hand-wringing in American political circles and the over-exuberant boasts of international rivals, the United States is a superpower and possesses the world’s preeminent military force. Although North Korea could kill tens of thousands in its initial attack — Roger Cavazos’ analysis of their oft-repeated threat to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire” is a must-read on this — it is highly difficult to see a way in which the North Korean regime could survive that war, much less win it.
At the same time, there’s a vast difference between the reality of American aggression and North Korean propaganda thereof. The regime knows that the United States won’t launch a pre-emptive war against them despite repeated provocation. Such a conflict would be an unmitigated bloodbath that would devastate the Korean peninsula and cost hundreds of thousands of lives. There’s no popular or political support for it at all in the United States, even among hard-liners, and the risk of a broader war against China would be too great. Because of this, the regime knows it can get away with shenanigans that that the international community otherwise wouldn’t put up with, even including nuclear weapons tests and artillery bombardments of South Korean territory. At the same time, Kim Jong-un can’t be so overtly aggressive that China abandons them altogether or that Barack Obama throws his hands up in frustration and flattens Pyongyang once and for all. The goal isn’t victory, but survival.
Behind what the average American would call the actions of a madman or a lunatic lies a sinister calculus. The North Korean regime must raise international tensions to such a level that they can justify their totalitarian system while simultaneously not be so overly threatening that the United States or China feels compelled to take action. So far, they are succeeding.