Why Trump’s ‘fire and fury’ will have no effect, as Kim Jong-un plays chicken with the US
John Power says the North Korean leader’s Guam feint was a predictable act in the regime’s long-running theatre of brinkmanship, milking threats for concessions while doggedly pursuing nuclear ambitions
The ongoing war of words between the United States and North Korea is being described as a crisis that threatens to erupt into a full-blown nuclear conflict. Take a step back, however, and the tensions start to look more like theatre, except only Pyongyang seems to know it’s playing a part.
After much bluster, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Pyongyang on Tuesday announced it was suspending a planned missile strike near Guam, so long as Washington didn’t resort to “reckless actions.”
When it comes to the fundamentals, North Korea is surprisingly predictable, despite caricatures of Kim Jong-un as a madman with a finger on the nuclear trigger.
For Pyongyang, ramping up and then diffusing tensions has for decades been a highly lucrative game it knows it can’t lose. It’s a strategy that has allowed an oppressive regime to justify its existence to its own people, while blackmailing the outside world for money, aid and various concessions.
There’s no better tool for extortion than nuclear missiles, or greater symbol of strength to hold up in defiance of an outside world you want to paint as hostile and dangerous.
It’s not surprising that North Korea is hell-bent on having such weapons, whatever the diplomatic or economic cost imposed by the international community.
Yet, we continue to flatter ourselves about our level of influence over what has proved to be the most resilient and single-minded dictatorship of the post-cold-war era.
Since Donald Trump’s “fire and fury” threat against the regime last week, many have anxiously asked how Kim might respond to such unusually bellicose rhetoric from a US president, and what can be done to find a peaceful resolution acceptable to both sides.
Military solutions are now fully in place,locked and loaded,should North Korea act unwisely. Hopefully Kim Jong Un will find another path!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 11, 2017
“How will North Korea react to mixed signals from US?” asked one such segment by broadcaster PBS. Such commentary largely misses the point, even if Trump’s bluster and unconventional style have raised media speculation that conflict is a real possibility. There’s a level of naivety, even arrogance in thinking that North Korea’s actions are contingent on the rhetoric of the American president or anyone else.
Watch: Trump says maybe ‘fire and fury’ threat wasn’t ‘tough enough’
North Korea almost certainly won’t “react” to Trump in any fundamental way, but simply carry on with its well-laid plans, just as it did before him and will most likely afterward.
Even when Pyongyang ostensibly responds to sanctions or diplomatic censure with specific provocations, such as a missile or nuclear test, it’s really only exploiting convenient timing to do something it would have done anyway, sooner or later.
This inability to grasp the deliberate, strategic logic of Pyongyang’s behaviour extends to calls to engage with the regime or defer to some of its demands. It’s true that North Korea might, for instance, “calm down enough to consider talks,” as US media website Vox put it last week, if the US and South Korea were to cancel their scheduled joint military exercises.
Watch: Kim Jong-un presides as Pyongyang showcases advanced arsenal in military parade
But if understood correctly as another act in the theatre of North Korean brinkmanship, it’s obvious how productive such talks would be. If Pyongyang didn’t simply storm out after wasting everyone’s time, it could be relied on to quickly break any deal it agreed to.
There’s no reason to think Pyongyang’s leadership waits for the latest statements from the White House before making its next move.
It plotted its moves long, long ago. Repeatedly, it has asserted its right to develop and possess nuclear weapons. Repeatedly, it has reneged on agreements to give them up.
In the meantime, Pyongyang will be happy to play chicken with Washington as long as Kim believes Trump will blink before actually going to war. Given the catastrophic consequences of a conflict, and the presence of cooler heads around the president in the military and State Department, war remains unlikely, despite the panicky headlines.
More than probably any other nation on Earth, North Korea has been immune to the wishes of the international community.
Nothing Trump or anyone else says is going to fundamentally change its behaviour. Nothing ever has.
John Power is an Australia-based journalist who reported from South Korea between 2010 and March of this year