North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un taunted U.S. President Trump by announcing that his nuclear force was operational and that the button was on his desk at all times. President Trump tweeted back that his button was bigger (I am thinking that button size is somehow related to hand size). But the pudgy dictator may not be the madman that many in the US think he is (the CIA recently noted that Kim is a “rational actor”).
Kim has observed that President Trump is easily provoked and has used this character trait to create a media diversion that disguises his true intent. In this sense he is more like a stage magician that is distracting his audience in order to create an illusion. The illusion is that the Kim regime is on the verge of war with the United States. To divine what Kim’s true intentions are, we need some historical context.
The Kim dynasty has been a regional problem since the end of World War II. The end of the war left Korea divided between a north backed by the Soviet Union and a south backed by the United States. Kim Il-Sung, grandfather of the current Kim, started as a resistance leader during the Japanese occupation of Korea and became a major in the Soviet Army during the war. After the war, he worked with the Soviet sponsored provisional government rising to be its premier and head of the Workers Party.
Supported by Stalin’s material backing and intelligence, Kim invaded the south and almost drove the South Koreans and the Americans into the sea. An amphibious landing at Incheon outflanked the North Koreans and the allies drove them back to the Yalu River, which is Korea’s border with China. The Chinese People's Liberation Army intervened and drove the allies back south. The war ended in a stalemate and the two sides agreed to an armistice separating two armies that are still technically at war.
Kim Il-Sung propounded an ideology unique to Korea, called Juche (self-reliance), that is a type of communism that emphasizes Korean nationalism and extreme economic independence (a form of autarky). Kim kept his distance from both Mao and Khrushchev isolating his country even from his ideological peers. Kim created a personality cult that has been extended to his bloodline and is written into the North Korean constitution.
Kim, his son and grandson have been ruthless in the elimination of any rival or potential rival. The Army and the Workers’ Party have been regularly purged and leaders executed. Even the Kim bloodline is no protection as Kim Jong-Un had his brother assassinated in Thailand and his uncle (by marriage) by firing squad (or worse if some reports are true).
North Korea under all three Kims has steadfastly ignored world opinion and plowed ahead with developing an advanced military on the back of an impoverished nation. It is not so much that North Korea has a large army, but rather that the North Korean Army has its own country. And the Kims have also focused on developing strategic arms such as nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
They have done this because their Juche ideology demands self-sufficiency compounded by a lack of faith in the Chinese to come to their aid in their time of need (the Chinese only intervened in the Korean War when the allies threatened China’s border). This explains why China has so little leverage when it comes to influencing Korea’s behavior. Economic sanctions have little impact on a country that hold economic independence as part of its core philosophy.
Neither the North nor the South believes that there are two Koreas. There is just Korea. Most people in the South believe that the two regions will eventually be reunified (hopefully more like Germany’s reunification with the East rather than North Viet Nam’s conquest of the South however this remains to be seen). Reunification is the principal strategic goal of the Kim regime and its actions must all be viewed from this perspective.
North Korea views the United States as an occupying force that is preventing this long-hoped-for reunification. North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that can carry them to the US Mainland is not a giant game of chicken played by a madman. It is a game of go and Kim believes that he has blocked the US from a vast swath of the game board.
Kim’s nukes are not the weapons of a preemptive attack on the US. He believes that they are a deterrence that will block the US from taking action against a North Korean invasion with the goal of reuniting North and South Korea under the Kim regime. Would the United States be willing to risk millions of American civilian casualties in order to intervene in a Korean civil war? Kim is betting that the answer is no.
Now that Kim has this deterrence in place he feels confident enough of his position to use diplomacy to achieve his goals. The recent announcement that North Korea would like to send a delegation to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang is the first step in a diplomatic initiative to achieve Kim’s goals without war (as was the use of the South-North Direct Telephone system in Panmunjom recently).
Kim has an opening with the new President of Korea Moon Jae-In. President Moon is leery of the alliance with the United States and resisted the installation of THAAD missiles. He has asked the US to postpone joint military drills at least until after the Olympics. He has long advocated reopening talks with the north and in improving relations. However, with his nuclear deterrence in his back pocket, Kim Jong-Un will be a much tougher negotiator going forward. He would of course love to achieve his reunification goals through diplomacy (and having waited seventy years he and his predecessors have already proved that they can wait decades to achieve those goals).
In the meantime Kim will continue tweaking Trump to distract the world from his long-term goals. President Trump’s penchant to view international relations in financial terms instead of strategic terms weakens South Korea’s trust in the US as a faithful ally. His actions toward South Korea and our other allies play into the hands Kim Jong-Un and our other adversaries as well. If President Trump wants to better understand Kim Jong-Un’s moves he would be well advised to put down his cell phone and pick up a copy of Sun Tzu’s Art of War (or at least watch the History Channel’s video on the subject).