The North Korean leader has realised bad behaviour gets attention. If Trump wants to push back against Pyongyang's weapons program, he needs to stop giving it to himby Jean H Lee / October 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
Standing next to me at a military parade in Pyongyang, the North Korean government official was jovial despite the bone-chilling December fog. Just days earlier, scientists had tested missile technology by firing a satellite into space in defiance of the UN Security Council. The bureaucrat was nonplussed by the prospect of UN sanctions. In fact, he was downright buoyant. “A good future lies ahead,” he portended. Continued provocations, I told him, would only draw further punishment. “Unless we behave badly, no one pays attention,” he said, matter of factly.
This was 2013. In the four years since then, North Korea’s nuclear programme has only intensified. In the din of the rhetoric from both sides, we sometimes forget to step back and look at what’s driving the leader of this tiny, impoverished country to threaten the US, a superpower with the world’s largest economy.
North Korea does not have a suicidal death wish, as President Donald Trump claims. This is about survival—for the nation as a sovereign republic and for Kim Jong-un as a leader.
Traditionally, Korea has always seen itself as “a shrimp among whales,” a small country sandwiched between much larger powers. For centuries, foreign policy focused on warding off invasion and occupation, a struggle that has bred in Koreans a strong sense of nationalism and pride.
Drawing on this history, the North Korean regime has shaped a narrative that paints the “imperialist” Americans as the latest aggressors, conniving to invade North Korea and occupy the entire Korean Peninsula. State propaganda heralds Kim Jong-un as the man who will protect the nation from occupation.