North Korea's Reasonable Folly

By Daniele Pestilli on April 7, 2013
Image: Satire of Kim Jong-un that has been widely circulating on Facebook.

Suppose for a moment that North Korea is not as crazy as we are often made to believe.

Despite the country’s iniquitous treatment of its people, let’s shun the facile argument that the Swiss-educated Dear Leader is an irrational psychopath. Rather, let’s briefly entertain the idea that he is just as rational as you and I.

In recent weeks, Western media has hyped up a scenario of war between the Hermit Kingdom and its neighbors, South Korea and Japan, and their sworn ally, the United States. This is because North Korea has escalated its show of belligerence in a rather unprecedented fashion: from declaring a state of war with the South to cutting a 40-year-old emergency hotline; from halting access to the Kaesong joint industrial park to warning foreign ambassadors that North Korea cannot guarantee their safety in the event of war.

Many people are rightfully asking themselves, will this truly escalate into a full-fledged war?

This newspaper believes that the more appropriate question is: what is happening behind the scenes in U.S., Chinese, Japanese, South and North Korean politics that has sped up the gait of pressures on all fronts? If that can be answered transparently, then full fledged war may be more easily averted.

North Korea has erupted with similar vitriolic rhetoric many times before due to the regular U.S.-South Korean military exercises. This year though, along with the harsher U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang and the notoriously unwelcome joint military training, was the fact that Washington decided to deploy B52 and B2 stealth bombers during the training. Naturally, these imply a nuclear strike.

Adding to this is the often unmentioned fact that on April 1, 2013, the meeting of the DPRK Supreme People's Assembly was held in Pyongyang. The convening of this Assembly was significant because a law was passed that makes nuclear weapons in North Korea non-negotiable. Another law makes it a crime for any North Korean diplomat to consent to nuclear negotiations of any kind. Other points that were ratified during the Assembly are similar to those of any other nuclear power. For instance, article 1 reads, “The nuclear weapons of the DPRK are just meant for defense...” and article 5 reads, “The DPRK shall neither use nukes against the non-nuclear states nor threaten them with those weapons unless they join a hostile nuclear weapons state in its invasion and attack the DPRK.” North Korea's recent posturing against the U.S. has a lot to do with the domestic politics of a country that wants to display its strength while not going back on its word.

As an article released on April 6 in The Independent reminds us, in the early '70s, Pyongyang had already been calling for a peace treaty with the US, but it was refused due to America’s Cold War policies. What’s more, the nightmare of B52s is still vivid in the minds of some North Koreans who recall that in 1976, the U.S. had them fly along the peninsula, veering them off at the last moment merely to frighten those below. And while North Korea is often demonized for conducting nuclear tests in its own territory, many forget to mention that the U.S.-South Korean military drills always include simulated nuclear strikes.

Making the latest North Korean war rhetoric all the more suspicious is the fact that recently, two high profile figures went there in a move many thought could be the olive branch that was desperately needed to ease tensions. The two people were Eric Schmidt, Google’s chairman, and former basketball player Dennis Rodman who was famously seen enjoying a game with Kim Jong-un.

From what we’re told, Eric Schmidt’s visit was primarily a business trip intended to remind the North that unless it embraces internet freedom, the country will remain underdeveloped. A more detailed account of his journey was jotted down in a blog post by his daughter Sophie, entitled “It might not get weirder than this.” Despite the criticism Schmidt initially received for the trip, the Associated Press reported that one good thing came from his visit: foreigners traveling to North Korea will henceforth be granted the right to browse the internet, Tweet and Skype from any mobile device.

Kim Jong-un and Dennis Rodman watching a basketball matchAs for Dennis Rodman, The Independent reminds us that there were two aspects of his encounter that went almost unremarked by international media: when Rodman suggested that Kim Jong-un use basketball as a point of common ground to initiate a dialogue with the U.S. president, Kim replied he only wanted one thing – for Obama to call him. Rodman also quoted Kim telling him, “I don’t want to do war. I don’t want to do war.” Although Rodman's televised interview may not have been the most eloquent or enlightening, perhaps he, more than anyone else, was able to capture a sense of Kim Jong-un's true self. This key factor might be the ray of hope that can lead to gradual change in the communist regime.

According to an interactive map by CBC News, North Korea is believed to have less than 10 nuclear warheads whereas China has 240 and the U.S. has 8,000. North Korea is surely aware of this disparity, and despite having the largest standing army in the world, a joint South Korea-U.S. military attack would certainly be the North’s demise. Yet the threats from Pyongyang persist, as any country that has its sovereignty threatened would do.

According to Al Jazeera, the U.S. has recently deployed a high-altitude unmanned spy aircraft to Misawa, Japan. From there, it is intended to monitor any changes occurring in the communist regime. The Japanese Asahi Shinbun explains, this is because Pyongyang gave the order to mount two Musudan missiles on mobile launchers, which are now somewhere on the North Korean east coast. These missiles have a range of around 3,000 kilometers and could potentially reach the US island of Guam (3,300 kilometers away). Japan is alarmed because if launched, the rockets would fly above Japanese soil.

Yet the rockets would not be directed towards Japan, nor would they be directed towards Guam (which boasts an expanded missile defence system) according to the Wall Street Journal’s well-placed sources. So what exactly is going on here?

The answer to this remains unclear even to North Korea experts, but there are several interesting hypotheses.

One is that the callow Kim Jong-un is trying to show his people he is a bold leader, and his words are meant primarily as a means of cajoling his countrymen into becoming an even more loyal and subdued lot.

Another is that proposed by the Associated Press, which was also hinted at by the New York Times. The crux of the article is that China’s disapproval of North Korea’s actions is unprecedented in history. In fact, Beijing went so far as to call North Korea’s conduct “regrettable,” a truly outlandish comment from the Hermit Kingdom’s most infallible supporter.

This has provided the U.S. with a formidable window of opportunity to build bridges with China, while reawakening Barack Obama’s latent Asia Pivot policy that was put on the back-burners due to the harrowing chain of events that took place in North Africa and the Middle East.

President Obama recently called Chinese President Xi Jinping to coordinate intelligence reports. It is the first time Washington and Beijing bond against a common enemy instead of being suspicious of one another for economic antagonism or cyber attacks.

However, some experts believe China does not want a stronger US presence in the region and this cooperation against a common foe is simply a fleeting affair. According to Asia expert Hyun Lee, “Washington will be unlikely to turn Beijing against North Korea in the long run.” But the New York Times makes a valid counterpoint in an article entitled Detecting Shift: last month, Xi Jinping contacted the newly elected president of South Korea, Park Geun-hye, telling her how highly China regarded its ties with her country, and offering a hand in the “reconciliation and cooperation” of the two Koreas. The American daily remarks, this statement would have been inconceivable under the former Chinese president, Hu Jintao.

This is quite a “shift” and it opens up a new realm of possibilities for both Seoul and Washington.

So is North Korea truly shepherded by a group of lunatics? We argue that the situation is far more complex, and that the Hermit Kingdom is acting like a cornered kitten showing its claws. It knows that any false move will be met with overwhelming force. The U.S. has much to gain from a resolution to this conflict: stronger ties with South Korea, Japan, and particularly with China – three of the world’s leading economies. China cares about regional stability, is fed up with the possibility of conflict at its doors, but would prefer to keep the U.S. at arms length. South Korea is the closest to the epicenter and would surely be sucked into the battle if tensions escalate. It needs America's support. Japan is struggling with a myriad internal issues – war is the last thing its highly indebted nation can afford. Under many conceivable scenarios, this conflict is vastly beneficial to the U.S.

Given the complicated dynamics in play, North Korea may indeed be following a clear logic: the logic of defense and survival, not the nefarious spite of an unreasonable perpetrator, which we are often led to believe.