L'Ombre de l'Olivier

The Shadow of the Olive Tree

being the maunderings of an Englishman on the Côte d'Azur

15 October 2006 Blog Home : October 2006 : Permalink

The Kim Point of View

A few years back I was a dedicated Kuro5hin reader. These days, I regret to say, I am not, primarily because it looks like most of the good writers have buggered off who knows where. However every now and then a good post shows up there and this one on Korea is one of them. In it it makes the point that while obtaining a nuclear bomb seems pretty stupid for those of us on the outside, if you are Dear Leader Kim then it makes a good deal of sense since it seems to be the only way to keep yourself in luxury goods and the other trappings of being a dictator.

Consider the world from the vantage point of the North Korean government. It is a poor country which cannot feed its people reliably. Its economy has not been functioning for many years. In the old days, it was dependent on handouts from ideological friends and allies; but those days are gone. North Korea stands alone, perhaps with Belarus, Cuba, and Tajikistan, as the last struggling outpost of the vast Stalinist empire. The superpower which sustained it is gone. The remaining superpower loathes it. The regional power it is closest to pretends to be its friend but instead uses it as a pawn in regional power struggles. Its neighbor to the south is ideologically committed to its destruction and tolerates it merely because it is terrified of the economic effects of its collapse. The other states in the region dislike and distrust it. And, to make matters worse, it is the only state in the world which has ever been attacked by forces which were (a) operating under the auspices of the United Nations and (b) committed to its elimination as a state.

North Korea is an extremely weak state, which continues to exist almost entirely because it (a) holds Seoul hostage and (b) is threatening both of its neighbors with severe economic and humanitarian crises if it collapses. Not only does it have no friends, there are virtually no states  which do not viscerally dislike it; it has been an international pariah for more than a decade. It believes itself to be isolated and threatened, and to have very few resources with which to defend itself.

If you look at it this way then getting a bomb makes sense in a twisted illogical way. After all the bomb deters external folks from thinking of regime change (as if having gazillions of guns pointed at Seoul didn't do that anyway) and hence ought to make it safer.

[ Unfortunately though it looks like, as the article notes and as I have commented earlier, the bomb has presented its one sorta ally - China - with some rather nasty geopolitical calculations. On the one hand China quite likes having NK around as a sort of nutter that it can claim to influence in exchange for other favours, but on the other hand NK's bomb may drive Japan (and S Korea) into getting their own and/or spending a lot more money on arms, and since theoretically both threaten China to some extent if they rearm that really threatens China. On the gripping hand if the regime collapases then China and S Korea are going to have to pick up the pieces somehow and that could be really nasty. ]

The problem is that, IMO, all these sorts of analyses assume that Kim is a rational player. The Marmot's Hole links to a must read NYT opinion piece that suggests that Kim & co are rather less than rational:

These long-term diagnoses of Mr. Kim’s psyche are a roundabout way of saying that because he is not a fundamentalist Muslim, he is unlikely to do anything really crazy.

This sort of cultural profiling, however, can get us into real danger. Japan’s emperor during World War II, Hirohito, was neither religious nor suicidal, and he led his nation into a war that no rational leader could have hoped to win. The point is relevant, because although journalists persist in calling North Korea a Stalinist state, its worldview is far closer to that of fascist Japan.

Like the Japanese in the 1930’s, the North Koreans trace the origins of their race back thousands of years to a single progenitor, and claim that this pure bloodline makes them uniquely virtuous. The country’s mass games — government-choreographed spectacles with a cast of more than 100,000 — are often mistaken by foreign journalists as exercises in Stalinism. They are in fact celebrations of ethnic homogeneity. “No masses in the world,” the state-run Cheollima magazine reminded readers in 2005, “are purer and more upright than our masses.”

And it concludes with this mother of all troubling thoughts:

While the North Koreans could kill a lot of people, they do not pose as great a threat to world security as imperial Japan did. Never have they shown any interest in forging an empire. All the same, the irrationality of their worldview is such that we should, at the very least, stop assuming that they would never use their own weaponry.

While Kim may not be suicidal himself, he shares Hirohito’s penchant for encouraging this quality in his people: “Defense until Death” is an increasingly popular slogan. In 2003 a colorful poster was disseminated to the foreign press showing a fat missile in flight with a suicide-readiness slogan on it: “Yankee, take a good hard look.” That isn’t bad advice.

As the Marmot says, it may in fact be the case that Kim doesn't believe this racial superiority claptrap, but it is entirely likely that many of his fellow countrymen do. What if they decide to have a coup becuase they think Kim has been too weak? In other words in the short term it could be better to stick with Kim than hope for an internal putsch to remove him. And such a viewpoint could make picking up the pieces after a regime implosion even worse.

I hate to say this, but it could be that the only way to convince the North Koreans of the fallacy of their racial superiority could be a overwhelming military defeat. Which means not just aggressive sanctions but actual air-raids and invasions by the rest of the world, despite the likely consequences of such moves for the inhabitants of Seoul.

I despise l'Escroc and Vile Pin