Kim Jong-un knows what he's doing. The US must seize the initiativeby John Swenson-Wright / April 5, 2013 / Leave a comment
Listening in Seoul to North Korea’s threats to attack the US and its Republic of Korea (ROK) ally, there is an urgent need to understand the motives of the Pyongyang administration. What are the intentions of Kim Jong-un, the new 29-year old leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the officials close to him? As the North’s rhetoric becomes more strident and seemingly uncompromising, how close is the peninsula and the wider region to the actual outbreak of military hostilities? What, if anything, should the international community do to avoid Armageddon?
There are at least three competing interpretations of the North’s behaviour. The first is the explanation, popularised by the 2004 satirical film Team America: World Police, that the North’s leaders are irrational, erratic attention seekers willing to play the high-stakes game of military brinkmanship for their own amusement but without a discernible purpose. In this interpretation, the DPRK is a potential threat but not one that we need to take overly seriously. The histrionic broadcasts of North Korean television announcers and the image of a rotund Kim Jong-un, sporting an ill-fitting suit and an unflattering haircut, contribute to this somewhat comic picture. But it would be a major mistake to misread this as evidence of a lack of rational calculation on North Korea’s part.
A second view sees the young leader using the current stand-off to bolster his credibility and authority with his generals. The military has played an influential role in North Korean politics, particularly since the 1990s, when Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader, developed the country’s “military first” (songun) strategy. Working against this interpretation, however, is the speed and smoothness with which Kim Jong-un has consolidated his authority since succeeding his father as “supreme leader” of the country in December 2011. As First Secretary of the Korean Worker’s Party, First Chairman of the National Defence Commission and Supreme Commander of the Korea People’s Army, Kim has apparently established his control over North Korea’s key party, state and military organisations. The abrupt removal of senior KPA officials in July of last year, most notably Ri Yong-ho, Vice-Marshall of the powerful Central Military Commission, has reinforced the impression of a young,…