North Korea: Sad, Bad, and Mad?

North and South Korea border DMZ

In 2000 Cranfield University’s Professor Helen Smith posed the now seminal question about North Korea, “Bad, Mad, Sad, or Rational Actor?” Kim Jong-un, the thirtyish leader of the somewhat misnomered Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) would indeed seem on the face of it to be bad, mad, and sad.

 On March 13 Pyongyang unilaterally abrogated the July 1953 Armistice that ended the 1950-1953 Korean War; last week the military was apparently given the go-ahead to begin military operations; and Seoul thinks North Korea will conduct its fourth nuclear test at its Punggye-ri site this coming Wednesday. But is the DPRK really bad, mad, and sad? 

Rather than involve myself in the usual shark-infested ‘analyst’ media feeding frenzy such occasions generate I took a step back and over the past week spoke to several senior people with real knowledge of DPRK (as much as that is possible) in search of policy perspective. Several common themes emerged.

  1. Honoring the ancestor:  Kim Jong-un may be trying to honor his grandfather and DPRK’s founder Kim Il-sung by trying to re-generate some ‘ideological’ fervor in the run up to the 27 July sixtieth anniversary of the Armistice that halted the Korean War.
  2. Remembering Stalin: March saw the sixtieth anniversary of Josef Stalin’s death.  This anniversary may have also contributed to the search for renewal of the world’s last Stalinist state with Kim consciously trying to re-create the Stalinist cult of the leader.
  3. “Military First”: Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, crafted the policy of “Songun” or “military-first.”  This oppressive regime in which much of its population is starving or close to starving is kept going by a close system of patronage between the governing dynasty and the military top brass.  Certainly, if Kim loses the support of the military he is finished and he may well be demonstrating his commitment to them.
  4. China is shifting:  Chinese President Xi has made it clear Beijing is no longer willing to tolerate the racketeering and other practices of the dynasty it has hitherto supported.  This weekend President Xi came as close to issuing a warning to its long-time ally as Beijing has ever uttered.  Irritated by the constant war rhetoric Xi said, “No-one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish reasons”.  Critically, China is also building ever closer trade relations with the Republic of Korea (South Korea) which is known to concern Pyongyang.  
  5. Kim Jong-un believes: Kim Il-sung once famously said (famous at least in DPRK), “We are opposed to the line of compromise with imperialism. At the same time, we cannot tolerate the practice of shouting against imperialism, but in actual fact being afraid to fight it.”  Worryingly, Kim Jong-un may actually believe this to be true.

There can be no question that all of the above considerations are exercising the minds of the small policy clique close to Kim Jong-un who are normally quite considered in the actions they advise. However, perhaps the most intriguing possibility is that this whole crisis may have been triggered by the well-intentioned, but perhaps naive private diplomacy of American basketball star Dennis Rodman.  At the end of February Rodman made a surprise visit to Pyongyang.  It is known that in a meeting with Rodman Kim Jong-un said he wanted a direct face-to-face meeting with President Obama. 

Such a meeting would be in line with Pyongyang’s long-standing demand that any negotiations for a final peace treaty be conducted directly with Washington rather than with the six-party Contact Group or through the UN.  Moreover, one of my contacts also suggested that Kim may have placed a lot of political capital on Rodman’s visit seeing it as something akin to the Nixon-Kissinger “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” in 1971 by which Beijing and Washington signaled to each other the desire for a new era in US-China relations.

Therefore, the current stand-off just could be the result of Kim losing face with the military over Rodman’s visit.  Here’s the rub; in spite of the current nuclear foot-stamping the ruling dynasty could be signaling that it wants a formal peace treaty with the US (and not the Contact Group) prior to the July anniversary of the Armistice or at least an agreement by Washington to begin negotiations by then. A peace treaty would both remove DPRK’s inherent and constant sense of vulnerability and guarantee the regime’s survival.  In other words, this crisis could eventually lead to an opportunity.

Even if half correct Kim would be taking a very big risk with the military and may need to prove his hard-line credentials prior to any peace move.  Washington clearly understands this bigger picture and intelligently cancelled an unrelated, routine missile test over the weekend.

North Korea; sad, bad but perhaps not completely mad.

Julian Lindley-French is a member of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisory Group. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

Photo credit: Flickr user (stephan)

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