One of the most bandied around tropes apropos the Kim dynasty in Pyongyang is its apparently evident, and ultimate rationality. Sadistic, sure. Psychopathic, definitely. Perpetually menacing, no question. Yet undergirding this otherwise profoundly pathologized and kleptocratic milieu is a leadership, and a leader, able to view international and domestic affairs through the lens of cold, hard, cost-benefit based, near Kissingerian rationality. Up until the remarkable events of preceding weeks this seemed an increasingly untenable position to maintain. Let me outline two scenarios:
Scenario 1: Kim is rational
Whereas the Kims viewed previous US administrations as pushovers (not entirely unreasonably), and unwilling to take the admittedly gut-wrenching risks to decisively impede the North Korean path to a nuclear capability, the Trump administration has finally presented a sufficiently unambiguous signal of its willingness to employ whatever means necessary to prevent the development of a nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting mainland United States. A dialling up of pressure, primarily through sanctions and absurdly bellicose rhetoric, combined with a deterioration in relations with Beijing, Pyongyang’s primary (and effectively sole) benefactor, has tipped the cost-benefit calculation in favour of rapprochement, concessions, and diplomacy.
Kim has recognised that he is no longer just playing, he is playing with fire.
Perhaps genuinely fearful that the occupant of the Oval Office might be unhinged, Kim has recognised that he is no longer just playing, he is playing with fire. Hence the historical hopscotch back and forth across the 38th parallel, Kim’s hand firmly clasping that of South Korean leader Moon Jae-In, Cheshire smile to boot. Recognising the increasingly tenuous nature of his position as boy-emperor over his enslaved, and near-entirely subservient, fiefdom, he has recognised his, and the world’s, limits.
Scenario 2: Kim is Not Rational
This is a particularly unpalatable consideration. In this scenario, Kim is biding for time, aware that the optics will provide him the necessary leeway to conclude and perfect the development of the coup de theatre, a verifiable ICBM, nuclear-tipped, capable of hitting the US mainland. The implicit assumption is that if Kim is sincere about the development of such a weapon, and unstoppable short of military action, then this is necessarily incompatible with the picture of Kim as a rational leader. Let me explain why this is (probably) the case.
Kim spent much of his youth being groomed for, and then enjoying – basking in – the trappings of untrammelled, unrestrained, absolute power over a servile population indoctrinated into viewing him, and his ancestors, as semi-deities. Drunk on power, Kim has become a real-life King Joffrey, so inebriated by his absolute authority within the confines of his kingdom, that sitting still is not an option. He must continuously reach for a sip from the chalice of power, thirst never fully quenched. History is littered with leaders who become drunk on power; as Lord Acton quipped `power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely`.
Drunk on power, Kim has become a real-life King Joffrey
Building a nuclear-tipped ICBM gives credence to this interpretation. Some consider it a defence mechanism against Western intervention. This is a difficult position to maintain with the acknowledgement that Kim already has the firepower to destroy Seoul, if not Tokyo, many times over, taking not just vast numbers of South Korean lives, but also American, and Western, lives. Even if Kim had genuinely doubts over Washington’s commitment to the South Korean people – a bizarre doubt if true – the existence of a large American diaspora, and military contingent provides an easily sufficient target in Kim’s sights to deter potential Western aggression.
Kim is thus already in possession of a sufficient deterrence; only one thing could potentially shift the balance in favour of military intervention into North Korea by the United States: the development of a nuclear-tipped ICBM capable of hitting Los Angeles. Indeed, it is this development that has produced an increasingly assertive stance from Washington. By appearing unperturbed, at least until recently, by the potential consequences of developing such a weapon, Kim has belied a potential irrationality, which may only be solvable through military intervention.
We can only hope that recent events have proved the first scenario and disproved the second.