Best of 2017: The rationality of Kim Jong Un

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The ongoing talk of war with North Korea and the threat of nuclear weapons has everybody dusting off their copies of Dr Strangelove and rewatching that classic black farce of innuendo, misunderstanding and paranoia in an age of Mutually Assured Destruction.

xxxxxIronically, for all the rhetoric about Kim Jong Un as crazed tin pot dictator with his finger on the button, he may just have got this one right. He is undoubtedly a cruel dictator presiding over a deprived wasteland but, for all his bluster and viciousness, it would be a mistake to regard him as an irrational actor. It is entirely reasonable for him to detect a pattern in recent US diplomacy and military activity.

Saddam gave away his chemical weapons under UN supervision in the aftermath of his expulsion from Kuwait — and the US invaded again to finish the job and hang him in front of a jeering mob of his political enemies.

Libya halted its nuke programme — and the US, France and UK invaded, resulting in Muammar being sodomised with a bayonet while futilely pleading for his life on the streets of Sirte. Syria gave up its chemical weapons — and is knee deep in foreign invaders, including the US whose 'moderate rebels', including Al Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir Al Sham would have burned the country from end to end were it not for Russia's reluctance to lose its sole Mediterranean ally.

Then, too, there is Iran — where euphoria at the conclusion of an historic nuclear agreement has now turned to talk of US repudiation of that agreement and a growing drum beat for war. One might certainly argue that there were complex factors at play in each case and some might even say, as the US often has (remember Ms Clinton's famous 'we came, we saw, he died' quote on Qaddafi) that many, if not most, of these worthies had it coming to them.

Nevertheless, viewing things from the point of view of a stated enemy of the US being asked to disarm, you have to admit that the precedents (regardless of which major party holds power in the US) do not point to a happy retirement on the Costa del Sol for those who comply with the indispensable world power's demands.

On this basis, I suspect that Kim believes, not unreasonably, that the current threats from the US of 'fire and fury' and an army 'locked and loaded' are designed to make him climb down and follow the well-established pattern set out above, presumably under the guise of a UN brokered compromise.


"He has even less reason to believe in the US' good faith than most: the Americans conspicuously failed to live up to previous nuclear agreements with the North."


He has even less reason to believe in the US' good faith than most: the Americans conspicuously failed to live up to previous nuclear agreements with the North (namely to construct light water reactors and deliver on sanctions relief. While Congress was to blame for some of this, Clinton administration officials openly admitted that they never intended to build the reactors because they assumed the North Korean government would have collapsed by the time the obligations fell due).

The US knows as well as the North does that any war directly threatens Seoul and Japan — and perhaps (but less likely) the US as well. Most of Seoul, a vast city containing some of the world's high tech leaders, is in easy range of the North's artillery and nuclear weapons. Japan, another high tech leader and home to many US troops, is also well within North Korean missile range.

A war would kill thousands of US troops and halt technology production, and thereby probably bring much of the world's economic system grinding to a halt.

For as long as this is the case, I suspect that Kim Jong Un is right to calculate that he will not be attacked. While the countless civilians who would die may not matter to what Bob Dylan so long ago called 'the masters of war', the bottom line and, to some extent, troops coming home in coffins, do.

The massive — and immediate term — blow back of destroying a small country with very little reward (there is no oil in the North) means that the game is not worth the candle. There may, however, be a lot of bluster (which will serve to hide other atrocities and bad news — and push up the stocks of arms manufacturers).

There is, of course, always a risk that someone will do something stupid (particularly since the US seems to be ginning up talk with a war with Iran as well). As ever, deterrence is a high stakes game of chicken with everyone the loser in the long term as resources which could have gone into feeding, healing and clothing people and mending the planet are channelled into mistrust and weapons for better and better killing.

The chance that someone will, as in Dr Strangelove, miscalculate and kill millions, is very real. Nevertheless, in the short term, it may well be that Kim's cold calculus is the one thing which actually prevents a resumption of the Korean War.



Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ is studying canon law in Canada. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

This article was originally published on 14 August 2017.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Donald Trump, US, nuclear war, Russia, Putin


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Existing comments

Surely it is ridicules to demand that one nation should be required to denuclearise whilst others are free to keep there arsenals secret. The only way out of this potential disastrous mess is for all nations in the world to denuclearise by a given date. Is 1st January 2020 too optimistic a target?
Paul | 11 January 2018

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