WRITING in Le Monde Diplomatique a year or so ago, a few months after Kim Jong-il’s demise, Bruce Cumings recalled an encounter with a Soviet diplomat in Pyongyang in 1981, shortly after the Dear Leader had officially been designated the successor to his father, Kim Il-sung.
Asked for his opinion about the younger Kim, Cumings recalls saying: “Well, he doesn’t have his father’s charisma. He’s diminutive, pear-shaped, homely.”
“Oh, you Americans, always thinking about personality,” responded the Soviet counsellor. “Don’t you know they have a bureaucratic bloc behind him? They all rise or fall with him — these people really know how to do this. You should come back in 2020 and see his son take power.”
He was off the mark by a decade, but the anecdote could be seen as an illustration of North Korea’s predictability. One reason why Kim Jong-un’s bellicose pronouncements in recent weeks have generally been taken with a pinch or two of salt is that they broadly conform to a pattern of behaviour. Threats of raining hellfire on Seoul and teaching American imperialists a lesson are inherited rhetorical devices.
They are widely viewed as a means of wringing concessions or aid, be it from the United States, South Korea or China. This time around, they followed the ramping up of United Nations sanctions last month after a rocket launch, and the extent to which the third-generation Kim has gone further than his progenitors in his choice of invective has been seen as a possible effort to impress the dominant North Korean military.
Recent publicity snaps, showing the corpulent Kim pointing towards possible targets as medalled army officers from a decisively older generation look on, tend to reinforce this impression. The North Korean leader is only about 30, with no military experience, hence it’s plausible to assume that he may feel obliged to prove his worthiness as a leader.
Kim Jong-il served as an apprentice for more than a dozen years before assuming power. Kim Jong-un, his youngest son, faced a considerably steeper learning curve: he had less than two years in which to hone his credentials — during which, it has been reported, he was fed a carbohyd-rate-rich diet intended to increase his resemblance to his grandfather.
There is another dimension to his inexperience, however: could it lead him to go too far? More than one observer has noted that the older Kims always left themselves room to step back, whereas the new kid on the block appears to have thrown caution to the winds.
Yet, notwithstanding a warning just days earlier that diplomats should withdraw from Pyongyang because their safety could no longer be guaranteed, the North Korean capital offered no evidence of defensive preparations as it celebrated Kim Il-sung’s 101st birth anniversary on Monday. Recent visitors have also returned with tales of relative normality, with only TV footage providing indications of a nation on a war footing.
South Koreans, too, are reported to be more complacent about the prospects of a military confrontation than they were less than three years ago, when the North sank a submarine and directed an artillery barrage at a South Korean island.
It does not necessarily follow that Kim Jong-un will feel comfortable stepping back without some kind of a militaristic gesture. But it may be no more than a missile test. There is no good reason to suppose that he would risk suicide by carrying out his threat to nuke the US mainland, even if North Korea has the requisite military capability — which is dubious. He couldn’t possibly be unaware that an attack on the South or on Japan would also entail dire consequences.
US intelligence agencies appear to have little idea about North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, particularly the likelihood of a miniaturised warhead that could be attached to a medium- or long-range missile.
The nation’s internal dynamics are also open to conjecture. Power plays and ructions among the largely uniformed elite are far from inconceivable, but it’s fairly possible that the prospect of an army takeover has often been overstated, not least because the military is already effectively in power and there is no obvious threat to the preferential treatment it receives.
The degree of nationalism in North Korea is not hard to explain, given 35 years of Japanese colonialism, followed in short order by a US-led war that destroyed most of the country and caused millions of civilian deaths. The armistice reached 60 years ago was never consolidated with a full-fledged peace treaty. Kim Jong-un has lately rescinded the armistice, but that probably does not mean much, and the need for lasting peace remains paramount.
North Korea is in many ways a grotesque state, and there can be little doubt that its citizens have suffered tremendously in the past couple of decades, with a devastating famine in the 1990s eventually giving way to mass malnutrition. The US has lately been seeking once again to pressure Pyongyang via Beijing, and suggesting denuclearisation as a precondition for negotiations.
This is a grievously mistaken approach. One thing North Korea has long aspired to is direct bilateral talks with the US.
Former American president Jimmy Carter brought back this impression from a visit to Pyongyang in 2010, and basketball star Dennis Rodman, after spending time with Kim Jong-un earlier this year, brought home the message that the Beloved Successor was hankering for a simple gesture: a phone call from Barack Obama.
“I don’t want to do war,” he told his American guest.
Whether it might lead to a new beginning for the Korean Peninsula is unknowable, but what harm could it possibly do to give it a try? Mr President, pick up that phone.