So what is going on inside the mind of North Korea’s unpredictable ruler, Kim Jong-un?
This question is exercising some of the best political and military minds from the White House and the Pentagon to the United Nations, London, Beijing and Tokyo.
A war that was once barely imaginable is now closer than at any time since 1969, when, just months into his presidency, a drunk Richard Nixon almost launched a nuclear strike on North Korea after Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, ordered a U.S. spy plane to be shot down.
Thankfully, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger intervened to stop the attack.
A war, largely between North Korea and the United States, that was once barely imaginable, is now closer than at any time since 1969. Pictured: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un
In view of Kim Jong-un’s increasingly bellicose behaviour, it is essential to consider the history that helped shape him. Above all, he models himself on his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the popular Communist and one-time guerilla leader who helped drive the Japanese from their vicious occupation of Korea at the end of World War II.
The body of Kim Il-sung lies in a crystal coffin in the ‘Kumsusan Palace of the Sun’ in his country’s capital, Pyongyang, the deified object of millions of North Koreans, who reverentially file past him in dark suits and kimonos out of respect for their ‘Eternal President’.
On one trip to what is officially known as the ‘Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’, I was presented with a book of propaganda posters featuring national hero Kim Il-sung in Soviet-style poses: giving guidance to the military, opening steel mills and accepting the adulation of his grateful citizens.
The resemblance between Kim Il-sung and his grandson is uncanny. Kim Jong-un worships his memory. He is embarrassed by the record of his bouffant-haired, high heel-wearing father, whose leadership was defined by a terrible famine during the Nineties, that is said to have claimed millions of lives.
Kim Jong-un sees himself as his nation’s saviour. He’s utterly convinced that his country faces its biggest existential threat for almost 50 years — from any number of international enemies.
Kim Jong-un sees himself as his nation’s saviour, utterly convinced that his country faces its biggest existential threat for almost 50 years. Pictured: A North Korean missile launch
Kim Jong-un models himself on his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the popular Communist and one-time guerilla leader who helped drive the Japanese from their vicious occupation of Korea. Pictured: South Korea’s F-15K fighter jets drop bombs during a training at the Taebaek Pilsung Firing Range
But at the same time, his country faces huge internal problems. His nuclear weapons programme is designed to act as a distraction to all this.
The government of his impoverished nation is struggling to feed the 25 million population and there are major energy shortages with regular blackouts. Kim Jong-un is politically isolated in a way that none of his predecessors were.
For his father and grandfather were always able to rely on the then Soviet Union and China. Moscow and Beijing could be expected to come to the rescue during any stand-off with the U.S. or South Korea, with which the North has a heavily fortified border.
Today, though, senior Chinese diplomats privately express concerns that not only has Kim Jong-un failed to heed their advice but he now refuses contact. This is profoundly worrying for us all.
China, Kim’s last ‘ally’, recently broke its link with the Pyongyang regime and agreed to join other UN Security Council members by imposing new sanctions. So Kim now has to go it alone.
Of course, at one level, the idea that an impoverished state can threaten a super-power like the U.S. — whose military has the potential to turn North Korea into radioactive dust — seems crazy.
Today, though, senior Chinese diplomats privately express concerns that not only has Kim Jong-un failed to heed their advice but he now refuses contact
But at another level, Kim and his generals believe they can blackmail the U.S. government and test how far they can go to incite President Trump to make a pre-emptive nuclear strike against North Korea. If that happened, Pyongyang, according to Kim’s thinking, would have the moral high ground — even if it meant that his own country risked being destroyed.
For Kim believes China would feel obliged to rally to his support.
Certainly, the regime is well prepared. Pyongyang’s impressive subway system is deep enough to be used as a nuclear shelter in case of an attack.
And psychologically, North Koreans have long memories, which means they are ready to fight to the death.
Their country had more bombs rained on it in the Fifties during the Korean War than were dropped on Nazi Germany throughout all of World War II. For the old guard who stand loyally behind Kim, that experience is seared into their souls.
Indeed, to them, since their country and the U.S. never signed a peace treaty following the Korean War, they have considered both nations to have remained on a permanent war footing since 1953.
This concept of a ‘permanent threat’ keeps civic order. Indeed, there is an unthinking loyalty to the national leadership that outstrips even the fanaticism that Japan’s Kamikaze pilots displayed towards their Emperor Hirohito.
Kim and his generals believe they can blackmail the U.S. government and test how far they can go to incite President Trump (pictured) to make a pre-emptive nuclear strike against North Korea
And Kim has learnt from the way that other tyrannies have been toppled by Western forces in recent years.
He noted that Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq was removed because it did not have the much-fabled weapons of mass destruction.
He saw how Libya’s Colonel Gaddafi was outfoxed by the French and British, and ended up being slung over a pick-up truck, savagely tortured and shot dead.
And so, he believes an arsenal of nuclear weapons that are capable of reaching the American mainland will act as his protection. Crucial, too, is the loyalty of the military to the Kim dynasty. During my trips to North Korea, I have witnessed this and Kim’s military infrastucture.
I have seen the myriad tunnels — to be used in case of invasion or attack — on hillsides by the border with South Korea. Alongside are countless artillery emplacements positioned to attack the South, and defence measures designed to halt any Seoul-ordered advance to the north.
Unlike other tyrants, Kim is guaranteed the loyalty of the army. This is thanks to the cynical official policy of ‘military first’, which ensures that senior officers get the lion’s share of the nation’s meagre resources.
The regime’s historic insularity — with its refusal to communicate with the outside world — means that foreigners are unable to link up covertly with his generals in the way the Western allies did with anti-Saddam forces in Iraq.
In the meantime, what is Kim’s game-plan?
Unlike other tyrants, Kim is guaranteed the loyalty of the army, thanks to the cynical official policy of ‘military first’. Pictured: US forces in front of a Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) missile unit in Japan
He is convinced that the Chinese government will remain its protector — albeit for reasons of self-interest.
Kim believes China will keep trying to persuade Trump against any nuclear strike or military intervention that could lead to millions of North Koreans fleeing across the 880-mile border the two countries share — which would impose a huge burden on the Chinese economy.
Like so many of history’s aggressors, Kim is trying to depict himself as the victim. He points to what he claims is the menace of South Korea’s annual military exercises, which involve more than 200,000 troops. He sees them as a potential threat to his country’s very existence.
And, in case anyone should forget, Kim’s missiles are likely to be capable of carrying chemicals and nerve agents similar to those used to murder his half-brother Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur airport in February.
If Kim Jong-un can casually order the killing of members of his own family, he’s undoubtedly willing to kill millions of innocent civilians to prop up his regime.
This deadly situation requires a skill and diplomatic dexterity which President Nixon eventually acquired when he travelled to China to meet Chairman Mao in 1972 and brought an end to the long-standing enmity between the two countries.
Like so many of history’s aggressors, Kim is trying to depict himself as the victim
But Kim Jong-un is calculating that President Trump has not learnt from his Republican predecessor — leaving Kim free to keep the world on tenterhooks that his pariah state will, at some point, fire nuclear missiles at California or any number of West Coast American states.
A chilling scenario — but one that, tragically, is increasingly plausible.
- Mark Seddon is Professor in International Affairs at Columbia University.