Trump's threat to rain fire on North Korean plays directly into the regime’s survival story. There is no victory for anybody hereby Isabel Hilton / August 9, 2017 / Leave a comment
It is unlikely that Donald Trump is fully aware of it, but his threat to rain fire on North Korean plays directly into the regime’s survival story. North Korea was born in a sea of fire: between 1950 and 1953 the US dropped one bomb on Pyongyang for every inhabitant of the city. By the end, three-quarters of the North Korean capital was destroyed and three million people were dead.
Memory of that trauma is carefully preserved in the Kim dynasty’s mythology. North Korean schoolchildren sing songs about the sea of fire, and of the central role played by the current leader’s grandfather, Kim il-song, as the nation’s saviour. North Korea, in turn, regularly threatens to rain fire on its neighbours. The more Donald Trump boasts that his sea of fire will be bigger than Kim Jung-un’s, the more credibility Kim Jung-un’s defiance gains at home.
North Korea is a source of instability and tension. Its policy, however, as viewed from Pyongyang, is not irrational. North Korea can no longer count on the unconditional support or either China or Russia, as it could in the Cold War. It was listed in George W Bush’s 2002 Axis of Evil speech; since then, the US has been instrumental in the overthrow of the regimes in Libya and Iraq, and has advocated regime change in Syria. The message Pyongyang takes from those events is that a nuclear capability is the best defence. It was, after all, the principle of deterrence that is credited with avoiding nuclear war between 1945 and 1989.
North Korea’s possession of nuclear capability is not the same as the intention to use them preemptively. North Korea’s provocations may be destabilising, but they have not, so far, been suicidal. Pyongyang has taken part in negotiations in the past and in more recent times has offered to talk to the US. Its demands are fairly clear: a formal end to the Korean war and recognition of the regime.
US objectives remain less clear—beyond the demand that North Korea renounce its nuclear programme as a pre-condition for talks. But since the North Korean regime has demonstrated an uncanny skill in playing a weak hand in the past, it is beyond improbable…