Why do foreign policy insiders and political analysts incessantly refer to Kim Jong-il as irrational? He epitomizes the phrase “rogue dictator,” but that provides no insight into the man’s mental stability. If anything, he behaves perfectly rationally — he acts as a petulant child that has never been disciplined for behaving badly. The West has already cut off much of Pyongyang’s aid, so Kim has literally nothing to lose. He has a country on the brink of famine and economic collapse yet shows no sign of ingratiating North Korea to the international community. The question isn’t why Kim comports himself this way, it’s why shouldn’t he?
Kim exploits the three quasi-safeguards in place that make an external toppling of his regime all but impossible. First, he knows that, irrespective of his untoward actions, China prefers the status quo on the Korean peninsula. Let’s not pretend that China and the US have any Korean strategic symbiosis. View our relations with China as high-stakes poker — a zero-sum game. The Chinese will never allow South Korean reciprocity, let alone an invasion. The thought of a unified democratic Korea run out of Seoul — with strong ties to the US — is understandably unpalatable for Beijing.
Second, the US will avoid military engagement at all costs. Mired in two wars, not even uber-hawkish warmongers can envision a third.
Finally, the rest of the world considers Chamberlain-style appeasement an integral facet of diplomacy. The sinking of a South Korean submarine and firing upon civilians received at best a muted international response. Only the US took a hard stance with North Korea. We adamantly rejected a return to six-party talks. After all, the US does not reward bad behavior. Unless Kim aims a nuclear missile south, his actions will be largely ignored by the international community. If we are lucky, the UN Security Council may issue a strongly worded rebuke and pass some nifty, toothless sanctions.
The unrepentant head of state must smooth the succession of power to his youngest son, dictator-in-waiting Kim Jong-un. Success depends on the elder Kim’s ability to show his people and military brass that their next putative ruler can lead the county. The November 23rdattack on Yeonpyeong Island helps facilitate his desired leadership transition. The attack further isolates Pyongyang but may engender a sense of nationalism a la an “us-against-the-world” mentality. Isolation can motivate solidarity. The desperate and starving population may get behind the younger Kim purely out of this latest appeal to manufacture North Korean pride. Pretty shrewd move by a man reflexively dubbed “crazy” by those in the know.
For years the State Department underestimated Kim Jong-il. He has proven almost Castro-esque in how he has steered a failed communist state to foreign policy victories over two US presidents. And he smells a win over a third. He duped Clinton and Bush into stall tactic six-party talks. Inspection delays caused by the negotiating process enabled further plutonium and uranium enrichment. The Bush administration dropped North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, in an olive branch approach that garnered a weak, if not comical nuclear disarmament deal. Put simply, diplomatic engagement allowed North Korea’s continued nuclear proliferation. Diplomatic success came in the form of agreements that were all later broken. Even more embarrassing was the photo-op the Kim Jong-il enjoyed with former President Clinton for releasing two jailed American journalists in 2009.
Previous administrations failed to adequately address the threat posed by North Korea. Coercive diplomacy could have worked ten years ago. Now President Obama will become the outgoing Kim’s last political coup. China’s dominance in the region makes Obama’s diplomatic position undesirable. Unless North Korea implodes, a foreign policy win seems out of the question. Kim Jong-il, an oft-branded loon, will likely end his reign by outmaneuvering yet another US president.
JM Arcano is a recent graduate of the University Nevada-Las Vegas. He is a self-described fiscal conservative, social pragmatist, and political cynic.