What does North Korea want?
What does North Korea want? The question is on many minds, especially because the nation keeps timing weapons tests—including a sixth nuclear test on Sunday (Sept. 3)—to ruin weekends and meetings between world leaders.
A useful approach to understanding North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s thinking is, perhaps, to consider his “term limit.” Namely, that there isn’t one for the third-generation hereditary leader. Barring an overthrow, Kim has every reason to believe he’ll rule North Korea all his life (and that a son of his will rule afterwards). Now in his thirties, he can reasonably expect to be in power for decades after US president Donald Trump’s time in office.
For Kim, then, the moves he makes now are about much more than fighting sanctions or enriching the regime. They’re about securing a rather favorable future—one in which he continues to hold absolute power over a population raised to believe in the divine nature of his grandfather, his father, and himself. So what are the threats to that future?
Revered in North Korea
The closest danger would naturally come from inside North Korea. But Kim has shown that he’s ruthless about holding on to power, not hesitating to eliminate perceived enemies, including his own uncle and many senior officials.
Having only been supreme leader since 2011, Kim is not yet as revered as his father and especially his grandfather, each of whom were in power for decades. But becoming at least equally revered is no doubt one of his goals for the decades ahead. So he needs to show, especially early on, that he can stand up to sworn enemies, in particular the United States. In this regard, it’s actually helpful when Trump makes boisterous threats against North Korea. That allows Kim to rally support for his ongoing weapons tests.
Of course, it’s been impossible to ignore the heated words of the current US president. Trump said in April that “all options are on the table” in response to North Korea’s “threatening and destabilizing actions,” suggesting an American strike of some sort was a distinct possibility. But given the potential cost of a conflict, the threats likely rang hollow in Pyongyang. US defense secretary Jim Mattis said in May that any military solution to the North Korea crisis would be “tragic on an unbelievable scale.”
North Korea “called Trump’s bluff,” John Nilsson-Wright, a senior research fellow at London-based think tank Chatham House, told CNBC in July. Indeed Trump’s escalating threats, including a dramatic warning of “fire and fury” in early August, have been met with only more saber-rattling from North Korea. Nilsson-Wright noted in August for the BBC:
“The legitimacy of the Kim dynasty’s political leadership is rooted in a narrative of defence against an implacably hostile United States… The 1950-53 Korean War, framed in North Korean propaganda as the result of direct US aggression, is used to depict the United States to the North Korean people as an adversary intent on destroying the country… Mr Trump’s recent bellicose public statements are a propaganda gift to Kim Jong-un, allowing him to bolster his standing as the nation’s commander in chief and protector of the country.”
1, Revered in North Korea
2, Kim Jong-un’s history lessons
3, Make Korea whole again
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