Kim Jong Un: ‘Crazy Fat Kid’ or Rational Despot?

Stratfor Worldview
Bao Pu

(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

North Korea's nuclear and missile program has been making plenty of headlines lately. Tension is running high and many people are losing sleep over what happens next. One newspaper even called the situation a "Cuban Missile Crisis in Slow Motion." But is it?

Twenty-five years after the Cold War, the world understands the nuclear threat much better than it did in 1962, at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. But what seems to be missing with regard to North Korea is a nuanced understanding of the government's cold, hard logic.


Insane and Erratic . . .

Let's assume the three major parties involved — China, the United States and North Korea — are all rational players. In this case, few would argue against the idea that both the United States and China want peace, the status quo and a reduced threat (in that order). North Korea, however, wants nuclear weapons to guarantee its own security.

Now compare these two scenarios: an external military intervention against North Korea's nuclear program versus the rise of a nuclear-armed North Korea. Even if the latter were to become a reality someday, the most rational choice for the United States and China would still be to avoid waging war now.

The reason is obvious. A ready but undetonated nuclear weapon is better than one dropped on an entire population. A political assassination or pre-emptive strike on North Korea cannot be conducted without risking a retaliatory attack that causes massive destruction. Without being fired upon first, any state that initiates an armed conflict leading to a nuclear war may end up bearing the responsibility for the annihilation of mankind.

Nuclear deterrence theory and practice matured a few years after the Cuban missile crisis. But the United States has lived with the reality of having ready nuclear arms aimed at it since Aug. 29, 1949 — the day the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. After all, the United States still uses a strong deterrence as its strategic defence against nuclear war, a strategy that proved successful throughout the Cold War and beyond.

Certainly, the assumption many might question is that the three parties to this predicament are all rational players. Are they? The West fears that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is anything but. Because media reports periodically relay bewildering stories about Kim, such as the purging and execution of his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, or the assassination of his brother, Kim Jong Nam, the image of him as "a crazy fat kid," as U.S. Sen. John McCain has called him, has run rampant. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently had to contend with this reputation by stating that Kim Jong Un "is not crazy."


. . . Or Cold and Calculating?

Far from it, in fact; all historical evidence suggests that Kim Jong Un is a highly rational political player, the opposite of the West's widely held belief that he is unpredictable. And such a player must be taken seriously.

Executing Jang, a regency figure trusted by Kim's father, Kim Jong Il, was a classic maneuver for a new despot hoping to establish absolute control over an untamed bureaucracy. History is rife with such acts. In 1669, the 14-year-old Qing Emperor Kangxi arrested the regent Oboi appointed by his father, a prominent Manchu military commander who had served not only his father but also his grandfather. Oboi died in prison while Kangxi reigned for another 52 years. In 1799, Emperor Jiaqing was only 15 days into his rule when he ordered Heshen, an official beloved by his father, to commit suicide.

Moreover, the assassination of Kim Jong Un's half-brother is not a sign that the leader "has grown increasingly desperate," as the New York Post has claimed, nor that the government in Pyongyang has become unstable. Instead, it signals the North Korean ruler's strength — and the government's consolidation of power. As Turkish professor Ekrem Bugra Ekinci has pointed out, Kim's actions not only compare with famous fratricides from Rome to Byzantine, but were also encouraged in the Ottoman Empire "for the common benefit of the people," who would purportedly suffer more from any war resulting from a power struggle.

"The new ruler must determine all the injuries that he will need to inflict. He must inflict them once and for all." Niccolo Machiavelli could easily be describing Kim Jong Un.

In fact, all of human political history considered, Kim's fratricidal assassination deserves a medal for despotic achievement. What it demonstrates is a clear ruler's mind, unencumbered by any 20th-century ideology, communism or otherwise. It places Kim Jong Un closer to Stalin or Mao, and far above Khrushchev or Gorbachev, on the despotic scale. To be clear, this assessment is not one of admiration for his power. Rather, it is a chilling acknowledgment of his willingness to sacrifice the lives of his people in the interest of his reign.


Playing a Dangerous Game

Equally off the mark is the popular belief that a society ruled by a despot is intrinsically unstable. The logic goes that because a despot generates repression, repression will lead to dissent. While repression is certainly present in a despotic system, no political scientist can predict how much repression, measured by the degree of suffering of a population, constitutes instability. The Chinese Communist regime under Mao saw its most stable period when it starved over 30 million people to death in the span of just two years. How has North Korea's Kim dynasty survived for three generations, outlasting the Soviet Union and Mao's lineage with no end in sight? The simple answer is that the Kims ruthlessly followed the logic of a despotic system of government without batting an eye. This system succeeded in maintaining political stability, even at the expanse of North Koreans' welfare.

What about the over-the-top rhetoric from North Korea, such as the claim that "Thermonuclear war could break out at any moment," or the propaganda video showing the fiery destruction of the White House? Does that not illustrate the unpredictable nature of the North Korean government? No, it does not. What it shows is Pyongyang's desperate attempt to communicate to the outside world that it will respond to any pre-emptive strike with all-out war. The tone of belligerent "bravery" is meant for its domestic audience as well, an added political bonus on top of its clear message to the rest of the globe. When it comes to the government's survival, it might not have any other choice in its approach.

No one knows better than the North Korean ruler that his government may not survive a military defeat on any scale, much as China's Qing dynasty fell not long after its naval defeat by the Japanese in 1894. A despotic regime is at its weakest when the brittle justification for its rule cracks.

If one assumes that Kim Jong Un is a highly rational player, it's not difficult to predict that the North Korean military will not fire the first shot, despite Pyongyang's rhetoric. Continued brinkmanship is precisely the game Kim Jong Un chooses to play. It ultimately erodes the American and Chinese positions, and while international sanctions will delay the process, they will not change its outcome: In the end, the world will have to live with a nuclear-armed North Korea, just as it already lives with so many other nuclear-armed nations.

This basic analysis of North Korean rationality makes it clear that it would be a grave mistake to take Pyongyang's bluster as a concrete reason for a pre-emptive strike. If Pyongyang's brinkmanship continues, it will most likely lead to a North Korea equipped with nuclear weapons and delivery capabilities, much to the dismay of the United States and China. The solution, then, is to refuse to keep playing its game.

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