North Korea’s shopworn game of bluster, threaten, bully, violate international norms and eventually be rewarded with concessions and bribes has stopped working, which is why there now is a crisis. With the suckers (ROK, USA and Japan) refusing to play three card monty and with even Pyongyang’s confederate China wearying of the scam when they have their own fish to fry, Kim Jong Eunhas few options to save face except to double down on painting himself into a smaller and tighter corner. There are some who would like to play the game of appeasement for a temporary respite but both Seoul and Washington are taking a harder line on North Korean antics.
One gets the impression that -unofficially, mind you – Beijing would not mind “Fatty the Third” getting a comeuppance that could push him from power and lead to the ascension of a more mature, more reasonable, more seasoned and more Sinicized leader of the Kim dynasty.
Here is a round up of more intelligently thought out (or at least interesting) articles and posts about the Nut of the North and possible war with North Korea:
Colonel Maxwell is an area specialist on the DPRK, these are the “must read” pieces
Robert Baer –Viewpoint: North Korea’s Gaddafi Nightmare
Gordon Chang –Is Kim Jong Un’s Bluster Really a Prelude to Reform?
Thomas PM Barnett –The Tricky Thing about Kim Jon Eun
Patrick Cronin – Tell me How this Starts
Let me try my hand at reading the tea leaves. I don’t know that much, relatively speaking, about the “sovietology” of analyzing North Korean nuances which I will leave for experts like Colonel Maxwell to concentrate on other angles. Some points i no particular order:
- First, any hope of an internal coup against Eun is probably nonexistent. Not only for the the consistent ruthlessness and lavish bribery which the Kim Family regime has treated it’s military, but the fact that coups of this nature have a poor track record in Communist states, even weird ones like the DPRK. From the inception of Communist power in the USSR, Soviet leaders fretted about “Bonapartism” by counterrevolutionary generals on white horses from Kornilov to Tukhachevskii to Zhukov. That these plots were mostly imaginary did not matter and Communist rulers neutralized this threat by binding the military leadership into the Party leadership at a level subordinate to the Politburo and periodically shooting likely upstarts. The political space for successful military coups do not exist in Communist regimes even for the key insiders, just ask Lin Bao. The North Korean military does not have the will to do this except in conjunction with massive Chinese intervention. Perhaps not even then.
- For all the talk of irrationality, North Korea has been been playing this game as a survival strategy for sixty years and only miscalculated once, with the original invasion of South Korea in 1950 – which only happened, after Kim Il-Sung received the blessing of Stalin and promise of massive support from Mao ZeDong – and it was an unmitigated disaster for North Korea and China. Pointedly, the North has not initiated a war since and their subsequent violent provocations, while infuriating, have been quixotic and weird rather than existential threats that would guarantee a crushing military response.
- The “win” for the US and ROK here is in frustrating the regime’s grasp for status, however self-deluded, in extorting more material concessions by acting like the international community’s equivalent of a crazy, menacing, homeless person ranting on a street corner. We need to make this charade appear to be a diplomatic sure-fire loser this time in the eyes of Pyongyang’s elite with an endgame where the North emerges empty handed and Eun feels that pressing further risks a greater loss of face. We do this by making moves where the spillover costs of North Korean intransigence and public lunacy drift in China’s direction; a tightly constrained North Korea out of diplomatic and economic options is really Beijing’s problem.
- The strategic equation for “victory” from the North’s perspective depends heavily upon the reaction of the US and ROK governments to get drawn into tiresome negotiations before the North ceases it’s behavior, something they ultimately cannot control. Washington and Seoul cold hold firm or even (conceivably) take a harder line. If frustrated in their quest for concessions, the regime could exercise several options a) shift gears to a different propaganda campaign to distract internal audience b) engage in an act of terrorism elsewhere in the world, such as against a ROK embassy c) engage in a military demonstration that while provocative, like ballistic missile test, is not a casus belli d) all of the above e) undertake a military strike under the mistaken impression the ROK will not retaliate.