Their stares are cold, tenacious and emotionless. They appeared bent to rip each other’s jugular out at the drop of the proverbial hat. The irony is that they didn’t – and haven’t, since 1953.
US President Donald Trump promised to send the “powerful” USS Carl Vinson carrier group to the Korean Peninsula last week; after some misstatements and bad press about the “missing armada”, the strike group is now expected to arrive in the Sea of Japan sometime next week.
But one can only suspect that amid the hyperbole of “going it alone”, Trump knows he can’t poke a stick in the eye of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, much as he might want to.
Indeed, the truce brokered between the North and South by the United Nations, for better or worse, continues to hold, making the demilitarised zone (DMZ) one of the world’s most famous oxymorons; the entire border is still filled with millions of live land mines.
Neither side can venture across the border like the charge of the light brigade, which explains why artilleries, flyers and missiles often take the central role in their occasional taunts.
Yet the intensity of the soldiers’ gazes belies another strategic doctrine at work: the threat of immediate retaliation should one side step out of line. US Vice President Mike Pence can squint at the North Koreans as he likes – Pyongyang just doesn’t care.
However, knowing that the US and South Korea have conventional and nuclear superiority, Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama opted for strategic patience. That is, of course, now over.
After all, if the Soviet Union could collapse on its own “internal contradictions”, why should North Korea be any different, especially when Kim is a young upstart?
Right logic but wrong analogy. This is where the script gets interesting.
To begin with, the Soviet Union was a federation. If the centre cannot hold, the rest of the republics will break away, as they did in 1991, to form the Commonwealth of Independent States.
The Soviet Union’s disintegration also saw Mikhail Gorbachev ceding ground to his nemesis Boris Yeltsin. None of these scenarios can occur in North Korea.
To begin with, North Korea is a dynastic kingdom, whose power had been handed from one generation to the other based on primogeniture.
More astoundingly, almost like a quirk of fate, Kim actually resembles his grandfather Kim Il-sung, in both form and shape. Perhaps it further enhances the mystique of the young Kim.
Some analysts speculate that Kim does not mind the physical comparisons to Kim Il-sung, and has even intentionally put on more weight to look like his rotund grandfather, all with the aim of adding to his aura of invincibility.
Of course, all that weight does take a toll on his young physique, both emotionally and physically, which is why Kim, from time to time, has disappeared for weeks without end, ostensibly to overcome his struggles with gout.
Be that as it may, Kim takes his namesake seriously as well. No one else in North Korea is allowed to carry his name, though students and officers are encouraged to don his peculiar hairstyle.
His half brother Kim Jong-nam was close to sharing the same name, and was duly assassinated in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on February 13.
Kim Jong-un’s elder brother Kim Jong-chul may yet be saved by his effeminate nature – Kim knows he will not be a threat.
Indeed, had Kim sensed any threat from his elder brother, he might have shared his uncle Jang Sung-taek’s fate – executed to prevent him from usurping Kim’s powers.
International journalists who have seen Kim up close, especially while he bantered and joked with US basketball star Dennis Rodman in Pyongyang, noticed without any sense of irony that he intentionally walks with an “old man’s gait”, similar to his grandfather.
The grandson, it seems, has internalised the spirit and form of the founder of North Korea.
By declaring the end of “strategic patience”, one wonders if Trump or his vice-president are aware of Kim’s alter ego. They are dealing with a man who thinks he can carry the mantle of his grandfather. This also means he believes he can fight the good fight.
Thus, Trump and Pence are not necessarily dealing with someone who is in his 30s, but one who seems determined to mimic and emulate the achievements of his grandfather, whose 105th birthday was recently celebrated with aplomb.
Kim’s father Kim Jong-il provides another insight into his behaviour. When he was sick, about a year from his death, he launched more than 100 rounds of artilleries into the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong in November 2010.
The true goal was to test the resolve of US and South Korea on the threshold of their strategic patience. Fortunately, US and South Korea were unmoved; the status quo remained. Besides, 25 per cent of those ordinances did not explode.
In late 2011, just when Kim Jong-il died, he handed the reins of power to Kim Jong-un, perhaps reassured by the thought that the strategic patience displayed by the US and South Korea was real.
Yet, the new Kim’s dynasty is most aggressive when weak or threatened, whether internally or abroad.
The US should not force Kim into a corner, as all signs point to a very insecure man. By morphing himself into the image of his grandfather,and by killing many of his father’s loyalists, Kim is trying to assert himself as his own man.
Kim has already illustrated the extent to which he will go to protect his position; imagine what he would do if he senses that he might lose it all to US and South Korea.
Phar Kim Beng is a former scholar of the Japan Foundation and president of Echo Strategic Insight