It is too early to guess how the latest storm triggered by North Korea’s behavior might end. Will this lead to a “surgical” strike on North Korean nuclear sites by the United States? Or will it cause “a global catastrophe” as Vladimir Putin, never shy of hyperbole, warns?
If past experience is an indicator the latest crisis is likely to fade away as did the previous six crises triggered by North Korea since the 1970s. Under the Kim dynasty, North Korea, in an established pattern of behavior, has been an irritant for the US, not to mention near and not-so-near neighbors such as South Korea, Japan, and even China and Russia.
By one reading, that pattern, otherwise known as “cheat-and-retreat” could be laughed as a sign of weakness disguised as strength.
However, if only because nuclear weapons are involved, one would have to take the provocation seriously. The Kim dynasty has relied on that ambiguity as part of its survival strategy for decades.
The strategy has worked because the Kims did not overreach, sticking to strict rules of brinkmanship. Contemplating their situation, the Kims know that they had a few good options.
One option is to embark on a genuine path to the peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. But in that case, the Kim regime would be doomed. That is what happened to Communist East Germany when it was swallowed by the German Federal Republic.
At 52 million, the population of South Korea is twice that of North Korea. As the world’s 13th largest economy with a Gross National Product of almost $2 trillion, it is also far wealthier than its northern neighbor. South Korea’s annual income per head is close to $40,000 compared to North Korea’s $1700 which makes the land of the Kims poorer than even Yemen and South Sudan, in 213th place out of 220 nations.
The other option is for North Korea to invade the South, to impose unification under its own system. That, too, is not a realistic option. Even without the US “defense umbrella” South Korea is no pushover. Barring nuclear weapons, the South has an arsenal of modern weapons that the North could only dream of. The South could mobilize an army of over 800,000, three times larger than that of the North.
The North, of course, has the advantage of nuclear weapons. But it won’t be easy to use such weapons against the South without contaminating the North as well. Almost 70 per cent of the peninsula’s estimated 80 million people live in less than 15 per cent of its total area of around 200,000 square kilometers which are precisely where nuclear weapons would presumably be used.
In other words, the Kims cannot rule over the whole of the Peninsula either through peaceful means or by force.
The other option the Kims have is to keep quiet and steer clear of provocations.
But that, too, is a high-risk option. For it would mean peaceful coexistence with the South which, in turn, could lead to an exchange of visits and growing trade, and investment by the South. In such a situation the South Korea’s wealth, freedom and seductive lifestyle would be a permanent challenge to the austere lifestyle that the Kims offer.
Again, the East German experience after Willy Brandt launched his Ostpolitik for normalization with the Communist bloc in Europe comes to mind.
But how could the Kims claim legitimacy and persuade North Koreans to ignore the attraction of the model presented by the South?
One way is to wave the banner of independence through the so-called “Self-Reliance” (Juche) doctrine which says that while those in the South have bread those in the North have pride because the South is a “slave house of the Americans” while the North challenges American “hegemony”.
The Kims know that by picking up a quarrel with the US they upgrade their regime. However, such a quarrel must not go beyond certain limits and force the US to hit back.
Thus in every crisis provoked by the Kims since the 1970s, North Korea has never gone beyond certain limits. And each time it has obtained concessions and favors from the US in exchange for cooling down the artificial crisis.
The pattern started under Jimmy Carter and reached its peak under President Bill Clinton who sent his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on a pilgrimage to Pyongyang and offered to build two nuclear reactors for the Kims.
One overlooked fact is that during the past four decades the US has helped save North Korea from three major famines.
Upgrading yourself by picking up a quarrel with the US is not an art practiced by the Kims only. The Soviets did it from the 1960s onwards. The Cuban missile crisis was one example; it helped create the image of the USSR as a superpower later symbolized by “summits”.
In the 1960s and early 1970s Communist China, regarding the US as a paper tiger, did the same by occasional attacks on Quemoy and Matsu and saber-rattling against Taiwan.
The Khomeinists in Tehran upgraded their ramshackle regime by raiding the US Embassy in Tehran which kept them on American TV for 444 days.
The Kims’ strategy has worked because successive American administrations have played the role written for them in Pyongyang, pretending outrage but ending up offering concessions.
Clinton had a beautiful analysis: “I ask myself: can I kill these people tomorrow? If, yes, why do it today?”
The Kims have banked on that analysis and have been proven right. Regardless of what North Korea does, the US will not try to do today what it thinks it can do tomorrow.
The Kim-generated crisis also suits China which does not want a united Korea which could become another Japan, an economic powerhouse and a potential military obstacle to Beijing’s regional ambitions.
Russia, too, is happy to see the Kims’ shindig diverting world attention from Putin’s shenanigans while exposing the US as weak and indecisive.
And what if the Kim-scripted crisis also suits President Trump by providing weeks of diversion from other problems?
The Kims didn’t invent governance by the crisis but have proven to be among its most ardent practitioners.
I know journalists aren’t supposed to predict the future. But let us infringe the rule by guessing that the latest Kim-scripted crisis will fizzle out in time for the XXIII Olympic Winter Games (Peyong Chang 2018) next February in South Korea.
Kim has achieved his objective of upgrading his regime and cheated on his nuclear arsenal without suffering serious consequences. He has no interest in pushing things beyond the edge.
This article was first published in Asharq Al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.