There is a big problem with North Korea, but it’s far more complicated than one would suspect from reading the recent media coverage. The fact is that Kim Jong-Un may be believed to be a dictator, but he really doesn’t have the unilateral power that term implies. While Kim may have inherited his position from his father and grandfather, he did not fully inherit their power.
How In Control?
Today’s Kim may appear to be the sole decision maker in the DPRK. In reality he depends on a coterie of advisors, military and civilian, to guide his reasoning. While he holds the title Chairman, National Defense Commission, which his father Kim Jong Il created in 1998, in practical terms his instincts and decisions are guided by chosen ranking generals as well as intelligence and security chiefs. If that wasn’t enough of a hierarchy of politically influential personalities with whom to deal, he also has to defer to guidance he receives from the experienced and astute leader of China (PRC), Xi Jinping, who, with his country’s large and modern military, is his and Korea’s ultimate protector.
In consequence of the foregoing, Kim Jong-un really does not have the unilateral strength to do anything other than seek an arrangement with the U.S. that has, at the very least, the appearance of a serious advantage for his country. In this regard there is a further complication. The American position is that the DPRK must totally “denuclearize” its military. In response, the U.S. will withdraw all its forces and nuclear capability from South Korea (RoK) thus making the entire Korean Peninsula nuclear free. In addition, the U.S. will remove all economic sanctions as well as funnel needed economic assistance to North Korea. From the Washington standpoint this all appears reasonable. The North Korean view, and the view under which Kim Jong-un operates, is quite different.
After Denuclearization Who Protects?
To begin with, the entire idea of the DPRK denuding itself of nuclear military power can work only if China and/or Russia are willing and able to provide a nuclear umbrella dedicated to North Korean defense. In turn this arrangement would have to be acceptable to the United States – of which there is no sign. The truth is that the North Korean military counts on the respect it gets as a dangerous and offense-minded foe. They don’t want to give up that respect. This is not a matter of simple pride, but an “esprit” that is traceable back to Soviet Russian military strategy and the personal experience of Kim Il Sung (Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, the “father” of the DPRK’s modern post-WWII state.) The latter first learned his military trade while working with Chinese communist guerillas combating the Japanese invasion and occupation of Manchuria before WWII. Subsequently he received his “graduate” training, politically and militarily, in the Soviet Union during that war, thus providing the model for the post-war creation of the modern North Korean state. The North Korean Army is as it has been since the end of the war against Japan, the center of the DPRK’s “continuing revolution.”
Reflecting this evolution is the existence of an increasingly competent and innovative nuclear scientific and technological North Korean capability. The abolishing of Pyongyang’s nuclear development and weaponry has to be seen not only as a blow to their military status, but also to their intellectual accomplishment. In effect this is an insult that no North Korean leader could bear and remain leader. Kim Jong-Un knows this, and that fact makes it impossible to accept any arrangement with the United States that denudes his country of any form of protection against any type of threat of nuclear attack. In other words, the DPRK sees itself as possibly vulnerable to nuclear blackmail.
Here is the core of the issue: The North Korean leadership, political and military, believes firmly that the Americans ultimately want to punish their country for past actions going all the way back to the Korean War. They think that way because that would be their own view if the roles were reversed. Kim Jong-un may use what has been termed “smiling face diplomacy,” but the bedrock of Pyongyang’s defense strategy must be to maintain an ability to deter any outside aggression. In their mind that means the United States with all its power is thus the continuing enemy.
No amount of visits to successful economies such as Vietnam are going to change the basic view that the U.S. continues to be the DPRK’s existential enemy. The promise of providing economic benefits in exchange for what is considered an emasculation of North Korea will not change the minds of the well indoctrinated and totally committed North Korean military, intelligence and security leaders. Kim Jong-un cannot and will not change this. Only China and Xi Jinping can convince their “little brother” of anything different – and there is no sign of that happening. To think differently is a “fool’s errand.” That is what Donald Trump – with Mike Pompeo’s help – came to realize and accept. Time may change things, but in the meanwhile the United States must live with a nuclear-armed DPRK – and Kim Jong-un, along with his politico-military regime, in turn will have to live with the fact that if U.S. satellites determine there are any steps being taken to place nuclear warheads on North Korean missiles, it will be the end of the DPRK as it now physically exists.