Now that the dust has settled on the most recent episode of North Korean nuclear “saber rattling,” perhaps we can stand back a bit to assess briefly the many moving parts that comprise this issue. It is important, I think, to understand that this was one episode in the North Korean regime’s ongoing jockeying for political position. Just like his father and grandfather, Kim Jong Un needs to address internal issues and external relations with the outside world.
First, an actual nuclear strike was never the point; it was about political posturing, gamesmanship, and credibility. Although Kim Jong Un is only twenty eight years old, he had been groomed by his father for nearly a decade to take over the reins of power. But his right to “inherit” power in Pyongyang does not mean that his grip on that power is unassailable. He has to show the North Korean population and especially the powerful military chiefs that he has the “right stuff.” For the military, this means demonstrating that he has the courage, credibility, and tenacity to stand up to Pyongyang’s enemies, as well as China, North Korea’s uncomfortable ally. For the population, he has to show that he is in control, and he needs to build a cult of personality that separates him from his father. More such episodes of nuclear brinksmanship are likely if Kim believes he needs to further burnish his leadership credentials.
Second, Kim had to demonstrate to the rest of the world, especially the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and China, that he is a serious, determined, and skillful leader. Although most of the world’s governments condemned him, and Chinese leaders distanced Beijing from the North Korean threats, Kim successfully required the friend and foe alike to pay attention to him and his threats, knowing full well that he could pull back whenever he wanted to. His actions may have been brash and potentially dangerous, but they were not the actions of an irrational child. In the long run, North Korea may be positioning itself to reopen talks with the major powers that would exchange a nuclear pullback for food and oil.
Washington could not afford to ignore the North Korean threats and Kim knew this. Secretary of State Kerry was forced to visit the region and warn that the U.S. “would defend its allies.” Defense Secretary Hagel said that North Korea’s provocations were a “real and clear threat” to U.S. interests and Washington was taking them seriously. President Obama warned that the U.S. would “take all necessary steps” to defend its interests. But Kim and other North Korean leaders knew full well that Washington could do little more than swagger and engage in sanctimonious rhetoric. If leaders such as Kim learned anything from the fall of Saddam Hussein, it is that the best guarantee against the exercise of American military power is to have nuclear capability and make sure Washington knows it.
Although China remains an ally of North Korea, Beijing wants to keep its distance and rein in Kim’s antagonistic rhetoric. This could push China and the U.S. closer together and could provide Washington with additional leverage against Pyongyang. South Korea and the U.S. have announced that North Korea should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons, but this too is hollow rhetoric—there is nothing short of all-out war that Washington and Seoul can do about it. South Korea will tread very carefully because, in addition to the North’s nuclear capability, Pyongyang has nearly 40,000 artillery pieces trained on the South and maintains the world’s fourth largest army.
When Kim threatens the region again with nuclear war—and there likely will be more such episodes-- perhaps the best strategy would be to respond with reasoned statements of defense supporting just solutions and protecting civilians’ security, but be less willing to play Kim’s game to the fullest. At the same time, after a period of de-escalation, perhaps it is also time again to engage Pyongyang in “guns for butter” negotiations that could deal with the nuclear danger while also providing critical humanitarian assistance to North Korea’s impoverished population.
- Steven E. Meyer is a Fellow of the Center for Public Justice.