Five assumptions we make about North Korea – and why they’re wrong



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Over time, the Kim family has become adept at coup-proofing its rule in North Korea.
Reuters/KCNA

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

As northeast Asia teeters on the brink of a conflict that could escalate beyond anyone’s control, it is more important than ever to be well-informed about North Korea, and move beyond the common caricatures of the country and its leader, Kim Jong-un. This is difficult when many misconceptions about North Korea perpetuate in the public consciousness.


Further reading: Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US


1. The ‘crazy Kim’ hypothesis

In the 2004 comedy film Team America, Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, is illustrative of a popular view of North Korea that both feeds and is fed by the perception that the Kim regime is irrational, crazy and evil.

This caricature is a poor foundation on which to build a North Korea policy.

Proponents of this view point to the Kim regime’s horrendous human rights record and the Orwellian social controls put in place to maintain the Kims at the head of North Korea’s unique authoritarian political system.


Further reading: Human rights in North Korea: the implications of the Kirby report


While the regime’s coercive arms have been responsible for crimes against the North Korean people that could be considered “evil”, this does not suffice as an explanation for why it engages in these practices.

The “why” is important. It feeds information into risk analyses and pinpoints leverage points for strategic interactions with North Korea.

We don’t have to like this logic or agree on its strategic utility to see there is rational strategy at work. We need to locate Kim and his regime within the context of the complex incentives and constraints of North Korea’s interwoven political, economic, cultural and ecological systems.

It is useful to step back from the whirlwind of recent developments to place the current situation in the broader context of North Korea’s regime survival strategy.

The regime’s brutal human rights record is a result of measures to consolidate its internal power.

Over time, the Kim family has become adept at “coup-proofing” its rule by playing off potential institutional rivals against each other and purging individuals when they become too prominent within the institutional hierarchy.


Further reading: Game of Thrones in Pyongyang: the execution of Jang Song Taek


The tentacles of the regime’s coercive power reach all the way from institutions to people’s everyday lives through surveillance, social controls and ideological indoctrination. It is a brutal reality that these kinds of oppressive measures are the rational and predictable way politics is practised in authoritarian dictatorships.

2. The ‘irrational Kim’ hypothesis

This also means we should pause before equating North Korea’s human rights abuses with any perceived irrationality in the country’s external relations.

Here one needs to understand the unique logic of North Korean foreign policy. To this end, it sees hard military power as the only reliable means of guaranteeing its security.

North Korea’s foreign policy behaviour generally emphasises the utility of military force as its only credible security guarantee in what it perceives to be a strategically hostile environment. Its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile capabilities are the ultimate practical expressions of this worldview.

When we analyse North Korea’s behaviour from its own perspective, we can recognise the logic of their actions. That does not mean that we agree with that logic. But it does give us a more informed foundation upon which to respond to those actions.

3. Falling for North Korea’s bombastic official statements

Coverage of North Korea and its nuclear program often seems to take place in a parallel universe, where the overwhelming military power disparity between it and the US does not exist.

The Trump administration’s position appears to view the North Korean leadership as evil and unpredictable, buying into the logic of the “crazy Kim” idea. It sees a clear and imminent threat to the US in North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and in propaganda that consistently threatens the US with annihilation.

It is easy to be fearful of the worst-case projections of the “crazy Kim” hypothesis. However, the strategic logic of that position just doesn’t add up.

Korean Central News Agency and associated propaganda organs of North Korea have a long history of threatening the US, South Korea and Japan with destruction. But we should bear in mind that inflammatory rhetoric is a tool of weakness, not strength.

North Korea is a small, isolated and economically weak country surrounded by larger, prosperous and militarily sophisticated powers. Its government has very limited sources of leverage through which to ensure its survival.

Projecting fear through muscular tough talk is one of its tried-and-tested strategies for ratcheting up the risk premium for any external power that might consider attacking North Korea.

When we understand the strategic purpose of this kind of rhetoric from the perspective of regime survival, we can apply the required grain of salt to the level of risk we associate to these rhetorical threats.

This is not at all to dismiss North Korea as a threat, but to interpret that threat in its proper context.

4. Capabilities and intentions are not the same thing

North Korea’s other lever of power projection is its nuclear weapons program.

Here the key point is to emphasise that military capabilities do not automatically equate to the intention to use them. We need more information beyond the raw capabilities of North Korea’s military technologies to perform a thorough risk assessment.

North Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches can be understood from the perspective of deterrence.

Analysis of North Korean strategy over a long period suggests its leadership is overwhelmingly concerned with survival, and sees needing nuclear weapons as necessary to secure itself in a hostile strategic environment. A North Korean first-strike against the US or its regional allies would inevitably invite an overwhelming retaliation from the US that would end the regime.

Unfortunately, some media outlets unwittingly misrepresent this context when they show maps of concentric rings illustrating the operational ranges of North Korea’s various different ballistic missiles, without explaining the strategic context in which those missiles are deployed.

For example, while Chicago and Los Angeles are theoretically in range of North Korea’s Unha-3 multi-stage intercontinental ballistic missile, so too are Beijing, Mumbai, Moscow and Darwin.

Those cities have no strategic value as potential targets for North Korea. However, non-experts could be forgiven for not grasping that from missile range maps alone.

5. Failure to look beyond the Kims

Media coverage of North Korea that focuses on Kim ironically echoes official propaganda from North Korea that equates the leader to the entire country. The reality of North Korea is far more complex.

The gulag system and human rights abuses of the Kim regime are well documented. However, not everyone in North Korea is starving or in a detention camp.

The lifestyles of Pyongyang residents and those of the other larger cities is relatively high by North Korean standards. This functions as an incentive for citizens to follow the rules and do their jobs well.

There are a diversity of life experiences across North Korea, lived by ordinary people who are trying to get on the best they can in the society in which they find themselves.

Those life experiences are being reshaped by dynamic social change processes. Rather than economic sanctions, it has been North Korea’s connection to the Chinese economy that has done more to alter the life circumstances of ordinary North Koreans and the country’s domestic politics.

The continuing marketisation of the North Korean economy has created noticeable changes in popular culture and consumption habits in urban centres. These changes have been funnelled through North Korea’s special economic zones.

The supply chain networks of suppliers and clients undergirding market activities provide an avenue for social organisation outside of official social controls. The rise of a class of nouveau riche North Koreans is changing the dynamics of the nation’s economy and reshaping the relationship between the government and the people.


Further reading: The rise and rise of North Korea’s ‘money masters’


When we lift our gaze beyond the nuclear issue, we can identify other avenues for influencing and interacting with North Korea that could help international actors manage the nuclear threat and reduce the risk of a devastating wider conflict.

The ConversationNorth Korea’s nuclear tests and missile launches are provocative. However, we should interpret that threat from an informed perspective based on demonstrable strategic logic, rather than on caricatured misrepresentations of the country’s leadership.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer in International Relations, Department of Politics and Philosophy, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Kim Jong-un’s nuclear ambition: what is North Korea’s endgame?



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Reuters/Toru Hanai

Nick Bisley, La Trobe University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test, following soon after a series of missile provocations, tells us a great deal.

Most obviously, North Korea does not feel at all constrained by US President Donald Trump’s rhetoric, and nor has it been coerced by UN sanctions. It also illustrates the acute regional tension caused by the acceleration of the isolated country’s weapons acquisition program.

While we wait for technical detail that will reveal the exact magnitude of the blast, and thus how close the regime has come to acquiring a viable nuclear weapon, it is important to try to determine just what it is that North Korea seeks in taking the risky, expensive and diplomatically fraught steps down the nuclear path.


Further reading: Q&A: what earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test


Determining intent in the mind of political leaders is always a fraught endeavour. Working out what the leader of a highly closed society like North Korea wants is harder still.

On this question there is little reliable information, and the best we have is educated guesswork. But discerning what Kim Jong-un wants from his nuclear gambit is necessary to determining how to respond to North Korea’s latest test.

North Korea’s nuclear program began in the early 1990s, and in its first decade or so was often thought to be a means of extorting financial and material support. The Agreed Framework, established in 1994 to manage the crisis, looks in hindsight like a reward for stopping the country from behaving badly.

Given how economically fraught North Korea’s existence had become after the Soviet Union’s collapse, nuclear blackmail as a means to remain viable had a certain logic.

The tempo and success of the various tests show that North Korea’s nuclear program is not a creative revenue-raising exercise. For one thing, the country is no longer as economically fragile as it was in the 1990s. More importantly, the program is so far down the path of weapon acquisition that this motive can be ruled out definitively.

If there were any doubts, the latest tests show North Korea is committed to acquiring a nuclear weapon that can hit the US and other targets both near and far. The reasons are as follows.

Contrary to the way it is often portrayed, North Korea is motivated by the same concerns as all country. Above all, Kim wants nuclear weapons to increase the country’s sense of security.

Due to their destructive force, nuclear weapons are thought of as the ultimate guarantee. The regime perceived that Iraq and Libya were vulnerable to regime change because they could not deter the US or other powerful countries.

As a country that believes the US and its allies pose a significant threat, nuclear weapons are increasingly seen as the only way it can protect itself. While North Korea has a very large military – its defence force is comprised of nearly 1.2 million people – its equipment is badly outdated, and would perform poorly in a fight with US or South Korean forces.

Nuclear weapons are thus a way to maximise the chances of regime survival in what North Korea thinks is a hostile international environment.

The ability to confer disproportionate power on their owners bestows nuclear weapons with considerable prestige. North Korea wants to be taken seriously as a military power of the first rank. The only way in which it can achieve that ambition is through acquiring nuclear weapons.

And while North Korea has been protected by China – it is the reclusive country’s only partner – it is also aware of the vulnerability that that dependence brings. An indigenously developed nuclear weapon promises security, status and autonomy.

Finally, Kim has made nuclear weapons a core part of North Korea’s identity under his leadership. The country’s constitution was amended in 2012 to describe North Korea as a nuclear-armed state.

This was a clear statement of intent not only about getting the weapons, but about their importance to North Korea’s political identity. They are intimately bound up with Kim’s leadership and his sense of North Korea’s place in the world.

How to calibrate the response to North Korea has to start from recognising the fundamental importance of the weapons to North Korea, and more particularly to Kim’s leadership. He cannot be bought off, and the desire to have a properly nuclear-free Korean peninsula is impossible for as long as he rules.


Further reading: Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US


All policy options are unpalatable but some are much worse than others.

Regime change or some other coercive effort to stop North Korea comes with the risk of horrendous loss of life as well as no clear guarantee that it would work.

Equally, cutting off the already very isolated country could cause it to collapse with millions of refugees. And more likely North Korea would figure out a way around any more strict sanction regimes, as it has done for many years already.

The best-case scenario is a negotiation in which North Korea agrees to freeze its program. It would not hand over what it has but it would stop going any further. Yet even this is difficult to envisage, and politically would be very difficult for Trump to accept.

The most important thing policymakers in the US, China, Japan and elsewhere can do now is begin to prepare for a North Korea with nuclear weapon capabilities. It is the most likely outcome given Kim’s ambitions and the very limited choices the outside world has.

But while it would be dispiriting development, it would be likely to create a more stable environment than the volatile context created by North Korea’s sprint to the finish.


The ConversationFor more on this topic, you can listen to Benjamin Habib and Nick Bisley discuss North Korea on this recent La Trobe Asia podcast.

Nick Bisley, Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and Professor of International Relations, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Trump can’t win: the North Korea crisis is a lose-lose proposition for the US



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North Korea is more likely to use nuclear weapons if backed into a corner where the perpetuation of the Kim regime was directly threatened.
Reuters/KCNA

Benjamin Habib, La Trobe University

North Korea’s sixth nuclear test confirms it is very close to perfecting a miniaturised warhead for deployment on its missile delivery systems. The 6.3 magnitude seismographic reading registered by the test blast is approximately ten times more powerful than that recorded from its nuclear test in September 2016.

There seems to be no outcome from this crisis in which US power is enhanced. This adds to the gravity of the Trump administration’s impending response to the nuclear test. Let’s walk through the possible scenarios.


Further reading: Q&A: what earthquake science can tell us about North Korea’s nuclear test


War

If the US goes to war with North Korea, it risks the lives of millions of people across the region.

US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis responded to the latest test with a threat of an “effective and overwhelming military response”. This is the kind of rhetorical overreach that is undermining US regional standing under the Trump administration.

There are high risks in any military action against North Korea. There are essentially no good options for compelling it with force. As recently departed White House adviser Steve Bannon said:

There’s no military solution [to North Korea’s nuclear threats], forget it. Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons, I don’t know what you’re talking about, there’s no military solution here, they got us.

The US loses in any war scenario, even though its combined military forces with South Korea would inevitably win such a conflict.


Further reading: Attacking North Korea: surely Donald Trump couldn’t be that foolish


Squibbing it

If the Trump administration talks tough and doesn’t follow through, it leaves America’s regional allies exposed – and gifts China pole position in shaping relations in northeast Asia.

America’s northeast Asian alliances, particularly with South Korea, will be challenged regardless of what Donald Trump does next.

North Korea’s nuclear-capable intercontinental missiles increase the risk to the US of defending South Korea and Japan in the event of war. This undermines their governments’ faith in America’s security guarantee. It does not help that the Trump administration has been slow to fill the ambassadorial roles to South Korea and Japan.

Any military action that leads to an escalation to war risks a North Korean artillery attack on Seoul, and missile strikes on other targets in South Korea, Japan and further afield.

North Korea is more likely to use nuclear weapons if backed into a corner and the perpetuation of the Kim regime was directly threatened. US alliances with South Korea and Japan would come under great stress if they were attacked, given that those alliances are in place to prevent such an occurrence.

Sanctions

If sanctions continue to be ineffectual, North Korea completes its end-run to having a deployable nuclear weapons capability.

This outcome undermines the nuclear nonproliferation regime. North Korea’s successful nuclear weapons development weakens this system by serving as an example to other would-be proliferators that they can develop nuclear weapons without any meaningful consequences – the ineffectual economic sanctions regime notwithstanding.

This outcome will also demonstrate that the US cannot prevent a determined nuclear proliferator from undermining its nuclear hegemony.

Nuclear monopoly, underpinned by the limit on the number of countries with nuclear weapons built into the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is one of the pillars underpinning US global power. The “nuclear shadow” cast by countries with nuclear weapons provides them with greater leverage in dealing with the US and narrows America’s menu of choice for exercising power.

Trade war with China

If the US threatens to squeeze China as a path to influencing North Korea, it risks a trade war it inevitably loses.

Trump has tweeted that the US “is considering, in addition to other options, stopping all trade with any country doing business with North Korea”. This is a not-so-veiled message to China, North Korea’s largest trade partner.

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Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin doubled down on this proposition. He claimed his department was working on a sanctions package that would strangle “all trade and other business” with North Korea.

There have also been calls to urge China to embargo crude oil deliveries to North Korea to further squeeze the Kim regime.

However, the US consumes Chinese imports to the tune of US$463 billion worth of goods. As Hillary Clinton pointed out while secretary of state, China has enormous leverage over the US as its largest creditor.

Risking global recession through a foolish protectionist spiral or forcing China to drop the “dollar bomb” is not a credible strategy for soliciting Chinese assistance with handling North Korea.

Nuclear freeze

In the unlikely event that the US negotiates a nuclear freeze with North Korea, it simply kicks the can down the road.

When we strip back the ritualised tough talk that regional leaders routinely articulate after North Korean provocations, and the inane repetition of the meme that diplomacy equates to “appeasement”, talking to North Korea may be the least-worst option forward.

The Kim regime may agree to a nuclear weapons development and production freeze, or a missile testing moratorium to buy time.

But given the importance of nuclear weapons to Kim Jong-un’s Byungjin development model (simultaneous nuclear weapons proliferation and economic development) to his domestic legitimacy, and North Korea’s long history of coercive bargaining tactics in which it engineers crises to obtain concessions in exchange for de-escalation, this could only be a postponement of North Korea’s inevitable proliferation success.

The problem with the negotiation gambit is that there is no mutually agreeable starting point. There is no outcome in which the regime willingly relinquishes its nuclear weapons program because the Kim regime is so heavily invested in nuclear weapons as the foundation of its security strategy, economic development pathway. and domestic political legitimacy.

A peace agreement

If the US sits down to negotiate a peace treaty with North Korea, its regional prestige will be forever damaged – and the raison d’être of its military presence in South Korea will evaporate.

Another avenue for negotiations to progress may arise once North Korea has perfected and deployed its nuclear weapons capability.

At this time, North Korea may call on the US to negotiate a security guarantee and a formal conclusion to the Korean War, which remains technically alive since the 1953 Armistice Agreement.

But why would North Korea want to engage in such negotiations? It will have greater leverage in these negotiations when backed by a nuclear deterrent.

Yet such an agreement might be the least worrying option available to the Trump administration, given the unpalatability of other options. It seems likely that regional countries will ultimately have to find a way to manage a nuclear North Korea.

A marker of US decline

There are no avenues for the Trump administration to demonstrate strength and resolve that do not ultimately expose the limitations of that strength.

Could current events on the Korean Peninsula represent America’s “Suez Crisis” moment? In 1956, Britain over-reached in its attempt to maintain a post-war imperial toehold in Egypt, exposing the chasm between its imperial pretensions of a bygone era and its actual power in the aftermath of the second world war.

The North Korea crisis is the most obvious face of hegemonic transition. Trump’s US is facing a set of outcomes to the current crisis that are lose-lose. They are exposing the reality of US decline and the growing limitations of its ability to shape the strategic environment in northeast Asia.


The ConversationFor more on this topic, you can listen to Benjamin Habib and Nick Bisley discuss North Korea on this recent La Trobe Asia podcast.

Benjamin Habib, Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

As it launches another missile, we must realise there are no easy options for dealing with North Korea



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Reuters/KCNA

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

Here’s the script accompanied by a lot of bombast, signifying not much.

  • North Korea launches another missile – its 18th for the year and 80th since Kim Jong-un assumed power in 2011. This time it travels over Japan itself.

  • The “international community” expresses outrage. Australia echoes these imprecations – at a distance.

  • Meanwhile, US-South Korean war games proceed, according to schedule, on the Korean peninsula.

  • North Korea ignores the threats, and prepares for its next missile launch.

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Clearly, a “fire and fury” strategy is not working. The question then becomes: what are the alternatives?

Back in July, the Council on Foreign Relations provided a useful primer. In that post, the author referred to a proposal by Chinese delegates to a US–China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue in Washington in June in which they advanced a two-step strategy based on previous remarks by China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi.

  • First, the US would suspend US-South Korean military exercises (the twice-yearly ones now in progress) in exchange for a freeze on North Korean missile development and testing.

  • Second, China would monitor North Korean compliance. Should North Korea infringe on such an agreement China would withhold economic benefits and security assurances.

In other words, China would have skin in the game – and perhaps, more to the point, risk losing diplomatic face if such a process faltered.

The above approach is not dissimilar from the one the Obama administration adopted in negotiations with Iran over a freeze on its nuclear program.

There was no single “big brother” standing in the wings to exert pressure on Iran. However, the involvement of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany contributed to a satisfactory – far from perfect – outcome. Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran agreed to freeze its enrichment program and subject itself to stringent International Atomic Energy Agency inspections.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration has belittled the plan to such an extent that this makes it more difficult to arrive at a similar solution to the North Korean crisis.

Donald Trump himself has described the Iran agreement as the “the dumbest deal … in the history of deal-making”. This criticism is echoed by administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson – although the US continues to certify Iran’s compliance each 90 days. Such is the febrile nature of American diplomacy these days.

As things stand, no amount of huffing and puffing by the Trump administration or its allies seems to have much effect on North Korea. The rogue state appears intent on engaging in a game of brinkmanship on an almost-weekly basis, thumbing its nose at round after round of UN sanctions and other measures designed to curb its nuclear and ballistic missile ambitions.

China has backed the latest round of sanctions and applied some of its own, but it is caught between its perceived obligations as a responsible international stakeholder and its more immediate concerns about stability on the Korean peninsula.

China displays legitimate anxiety about a conflict between the two Koreas spiralling out of control, destabilising East Asia in the process and, no doubt, causing a tidal wave of refugees to cross into China itself.

From China’s perspective, maintaining relative calm on the Korean peninsula is a number-one priority. This leaves aside other considerations like its usefulness to China of a divided Korea as a buffer against a US-Japanese-South Korean security bloc in East Asia.

These are all complex calculations made more so by Kim’s personality. Perhaps even more than his father and grandfather, he appears willing to push the limits of what the rest of the world – including China – might tolerate.

The Kim personality contributes to understandable alarm about risks involved in a game of bluff on the Korean peninsula, given the near-certainty of the annihilation of thousands if conflict erupted. There is no more potentially destructive and volatile corner of the world.

Among challenges for the international community in its dealings with North Korea is that country’s apparent imperviousness to sanctions – or, at least, its ability to withstand what are now four rounds of UN sanctions resolutions since 2006.

The Council on Foreign Relations writer makes the point that unlike oil-dependent Iran – which yielded eventually to international pressures, including sanctions against imports of Iranian crude – North Korea remains adept at exploiting loopholes in a sanctions regime. It lives with its isolation.

Each new round of missile tests, accompanied by further evidence of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, should be prompting a searching review of options beyond hyperbolic threats detached from reality.

What’s required is a new approach that would draw on experience in dealing with Iran’s nuclear ambitions. China would be a critical component of such a diplomatic offensive whose aim would be to freeze North Korea’s nuclear program and place limits on its missile development.

The point is that where North Korea is concerned there are no easy options, simply ones that are less bad. Policymakers in the US and among its allies, including principally Japan and South Korea, should be resisting the temptation to grandstand.

The existing approach is not working. A military option does not exist, except in the minds of less rational players.

The ConversationIn any solution, China remains the gatekeeper.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

The West’s hyperbole on North Korea will only fuel Kim Jong-un’s propaganda



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Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric and action against the US and others is framed domestically as the heroic defiance of an evil enemy.
Reuters/KCNA

Nicholas R. Smith

After a fairly quiet couple of months on North Korea and its self-styled madman leader, Kim Jong-un, the international community is again on high alert.

On Tuesday, North Korea undertook another missile test. This time it tested an inter-continental ballistic missile, which it claims can reach anywhere in the world.

On paper, North Korea represents a sizeable threat to the international community. It is a totalitarian state; it has nuclear weapons; and it is ruled by a megalomaniac leader. Even to the most self-assured deterrence theorist, North Korea must elicit some dark fears.

Fuelling North Korea’s propaganda

The potential destruction of a nuclear attack and the likely repercussions is so grave that it is understandable that most are prepared to take Kim’s rhetoric and actions at face value. This is smart, in one sense, because it is arguably not worth poking a deranged animal about what he should rationally do by using international relations theory.

However, in another sense, it is giving Kim exactly what he wants: fuel for propaganda.

Kim’s rhetoric and actions are a carefully crafted strategy of brinkmanship, designed mostly for maintaining his domestic grip on power. The biggest challenge in his position as supreme leader – one all autocrats face – is how to maintain his authoritarian rule.

Unlike leaders in democracies – where elections give a clear popular mandate to rule, and institutions have legitimacy in the eyes of the people – autocrats face an ongoing domestic conundrum of how best to cultivate legitimacy. Two strategies are commonly used: repression and propaganda.

Repression (often involving terror) is an obvious tactic that leaders and elites in authoritarian countries utilise to solidify their grip on power. Weakening people’s belief that collective action can bring about positive change is an important prerequisite for authoritarian rule.

Ironically, it is often when authoritarian states undertake some form of liberalisation that people are able to rise up and topple the incumbent regime. Two such examples are the French Revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Propaganda is a similarly noticeable tactic that leaders and elites in authoritarian countries use to justify and explain their harsh rule. Such propaganda usually has two aims: discrediting dissidents, and blaming external actors.

Under this propaganda, which becomes more potent when a state has a monopoly on the dissemination of information, domestic dissidents and opposition movements become wreckers or terrorists. Overseas adversaries become meddlers or imperialists.

Can China contain the threat?

Of importance to the international community right now is that, in a similar fashion to Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Kim has consciously used an external adversary for domestic propaganda purposes. In this case, it is the US and its proxies – especially South Korea.

To this end, Kim’s rhetoric and action against the US and others is framed domestically as the heroic defiance of an evil enemy. As the Putin example shows, standing up to a perceived evil enemy – especially a more powerful one – garners a lot of domestic support.

Kim Jong-un, like his father Kim Jong-il, has been able to pursue this strategy of brinkmanship with great success, at least for domestic purposes. This is mainly because despite all the international repercussions to date – ostracism, sanctions, and threats of intervention – China has been willing to prop up North Korea.

China’s interest is simple. It sees a potentially unified Korea that would place US military bases on its border as untenable. So, propping up North Korea is of clear strategic value.

China probably sees Kim’s toppling as something that cannot be allowed to happen. However, it still has the best chance of managing the North Korean conundrum with the least amount of fallout. Given its own authoritarian – and previously totalitarian – structure, China probably understands Kim’s strategy of brinkmanship better than the West does.

Also, China has the leverage to assuage Kim, and ensure his rhetoric and actions remain mere brinkmanship and not active policy.

The ConversationThese facts, and the probability that China would not want any conflict between North Korea and the West, should provide confidence that – if US President Donald Trump can get out of the way – the North Korean threat is largely under control. But we definitely have not heard the last of Kim, or North Korea’s weapons program.

Nicholas R. Smith, Postdoctoral Fellow

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

North Korea: Kim Jong Un


The link below is to an article that provides something of a profile of ‘man of the moment’ – Kim Jong Un.

For more visit:
http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/north-korean-leader-kim-jong-un-offers-many-faces-many-threats/2013/04/13/c8f0aa70-a3ad-11e2-82bc-511538ae90a4_story.html