Theodore Roosevelt’s approach to foreign policy was to “speak softly, and carry a big stick.” Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, has confused the two.
North Korea’s rhetoric is nothing new — in fact, it’s become de rigueur for Pyongyang to threaten war whenever it wants an increase in its foreign aid allowance, much like a petulant child. The current level of tensions, however, is unprecedented. What is driving North Korea’s actions? Evidence suggests that Kim’s rhetoric may be part of a carefully concerted plan to legitimize his leadership of North Korea, strengthen his hold over the Korean People’s Army and improve Pyongyang’s bargaining position vis-à-vis foreign aid. There’s another much simpler reason: it seems to work.
When Kim came into power at age 27, reports from North Korea contended that he was considered far too young and inexperienced for the job. By the time his father had assumed power in his early 50s, Kim Jong-il was already enmeshed in the North Korean government, and his ability to rule was never questioned. Kim Jong-un arrived in his current position as an untested leader of a country that prizes military strength above all. Initially, rumors abounded that his uncle would act as regent until Kim was deemed ready to govern. The government wasted no time building up his cult of personality, though, awarding him the rank of Marshal of the Republic, staging photo opportunities and even providing him a wife, Ri Sol-ju, to give an image of maturity.
Simple titles and empty gestures are not going to win Kim the much-needed respect of the Korean Army. He has to generate a plausible rationale for his rule. Thus, images of him conferring with military officials, inspecting the army’s “latest technology” and plotting nuclear targets (he harbors particular antipathy for Austin, Tex). The North Korean propaganda machine routinely puts out images of a Kim loved and respected by the people. Yet he still blusters and deliberately heats up tensions. Why? Here are some key reasons:
Kim has “cried wolf” far too often, and no one is listening anymore. He has to up the ante each time to get the same result, like a drug addict needs a stronger dose to feel the same rush. He also needs to shore up his domestic support, so he is artificially creating a “rally-around-the-flag” effect. But above all, the method works. The West gives him what he wants to get him to stop. North Korea wants nuclear weapons, and the West pays him not to want them. His people love him for providing basic services. Then, Pyongyang secretly develops nuclear weapons anyway.
The United Nations Security Council and the United States levy harsher and harsher sanctions on the regime, cutting off aid. Kim can then blame the West for North Korea’s poverty, mobilize the army and threaten missile tests, inviting further sanctions and the movement of US forces into the region.
Kim recently went as far as to raise a missile to its launching position (only to lower it later). It’s a circular pattern that ends up enhancing his image domestically and allows the country’s army to reinforce its rationale for existence. By deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system and two Aegis antimissile ships in the region, the US is doing exactly what Kim plotted — to show that the US is threatening North Korea and that the people need Kim and the army to protect them.
While the American, Russian, Japanese, South Korean and even Chinese governments are incensed and prepared for conflict, the South Korean people are more bored than alarmed by Kim’s antics. They know that North Korea is more bark than bite. Despite appearances, Kim is no fool. Any military action between North Korea and US-South Korean forces would be one-sided and tragically short. Furthermore, using a nuclear weapon would be game-over for North Korea. The humanitarian devastation would cost the country global sympathy; China would fully abandon Kim, and US-South Korean forces would have free reign to invade North Korea — with possibly China’s help.
As Kim tries to improve Pyongyang’s negotiating position in foreign-aid talks, the US is falling for it. We need to stop feeding the cycle that Kim keeps creating. We need to demonstrate to Pyongyang that this strategy of Kim simply will not work anymore. We must break the weapon of manipulation if we are to achieve lasting change in the Korean Peninsula.
Anup Rao is a master’s candidate of diplomacy and international relations at Seton Hall University’s John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relation. His research centers on foreign policy analysis, international security and Asian studies. Rao is also an associate editor of the Whitehead Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @AnupNRao.