North Korea’s Kim Jong-un knows how to wield nuclear power, as even Trump has realised
Nicholas Khoo says Kim Jong-un’s aggressive pursuit of a nuclear weapons programme shows he knows it is the ultimate deterrent, and a newly mellow tone from Donald Trump is proof of that
The current crisis over North Korea’s nuclear programme is only the most recent example in a long line of disruptive behaviour from Pyongyang.
In 1950, founder and supreme leader Kim Il-sung triggered the Korean war, which ended in 1953 with an armistice, not a peace treaty. So, in a very real sense, the war is not over. His grandson Kim Jong-un now rules, and is hell-bent on perfecting the ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile with a nuclear warhead on it.
So, how should we interpret the present Kim’s behaviour? It is not unusual to hear him characterised as either crazy or irrational.
Donald Trump had made his views clear. Speaking last year as a presidential candidate, he said: “If you look at North Korea, he’s like a maniac.” More recently, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, noted that, “we are not dealing with a rational person”.
But calling someone a maniac or irrational is often easier than the more challenging and important task of actually analysing their behaviour. Let’s be clear. Kim’s regime exhibits some truly repulsive characteristics. These include running an extensive political prison system; executing high-level officials for suspected disloyalty in grotesque ways; and enjoying a lifestyle of extravagant luxury while his people go hungry.
And, with the recent murder of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, allegedly by North Korean operatives at Kuala Lumpur airport, strong paranoia and ruthlessness are undoubtedly at work. One can even claim that Kim lacks a “moral compass”. But, in aggressively pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, the North Korean leader is quite rational.
It’s a pretty good assumption that Kim wants to maintain his dictatorship, and all its benefits.
And, given the decrepit state of the economy he inherited, the best way to maintain power is through possession of the ultimate deterrent, nuclear weapons that can strike major cities in South Korea, Japan and even the US.
To this end, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests since 2006, along with countless missile tests. Given the regime’s progress in developing a nuclear deterrent against the US, it is little wonder that, 100 days after assuming the presidency, even Trump has come around on Kim.
In an interview with Bloomberg News last week, Trump said he would be “honoured” to meet the North Korean leader “if it’s under the right circumstances”.
So, in pursuing a nuclear capability, the present North Korean leader may be many things, but he is most certainly neither crazy nor irrational.
Dr Nicholas Khoo is senior lecturer in the Department of Politics, University of Otago, where he is director of the Master’s degree in International Studies. His research focuses on Chinese foreign policy and Asian security