The lesson from the history of totalitarianism is clear: The controlling logic behind the acts of a closed regime is paranoia. It sees enemies everywhere. North Korea’s unusually bellicose statements and provocative actions of late may be best understood, then, as paranoid—but, to borrow Henry Kissinger’s infamous phrase, even a paranoid has real enemies.
The strident defensiveness of the United States government and its massive military in the face of North Korea’s posturing has only fed Pyongyang’s paranoia, confirming the regime’s own view of the reasonableness of its operative logic. No amount of forceful argument or careful diplomacy will convince Kim Jong-un and the North Korean military that they do not face dire external threats; that, in fact, the only real threat to North Korea is the chaos that will follow from the regime’s inevitable collapse.
We do not yet know with any precision why Pyongyang decided to rattle its nuclear-tipped saber; perhaps various factors are to blame, and perhaps in combination. The increasing impact of UN sanctions in the wake of continuing North Korean attempts to conduct more missile tests, the election of a woman leader in South Korea, the so-called American pivot to Asia under the Obama administration, perhaps especially the structural stress involved in the young Kim’s campaign to consolidate absolute power in the world’s last Stalinist state have had some bearing on the turn of events.
Whatever the factors in play, in the last few weeks North Korea has taken a truly belligerent stance: ratcheting its official rhetoric to new levels of aggressiveness, issuing threats to aim a missile with a nuclear warhead at American cities, even announcing a declaration of war on South Korea. (Technically, the two Koreas have been at war since the 1950s, because a cessation of hostilities was never declared at the “end” of the Korean War.)
That this posturing will hurt the North Korean people the most is evidenced by Pyongyang’s decision to bar workers from the special economic zone it manages with Seoul. Even though we can assume that most of the revenues from such an arrangement will benefit the North Korean military, increasing economic pressures inside the hermit kingdom can only add to the burden of Kim’s impoverished people.
But shouldn’t all this muscle-flexing be met with requisite resolve? Surely no one can fault Seoul if South Koreans are now on heightened military alert. At the start of the Korean War, the South Korean capital was taken with astonishing speed; one must assume that Seoul faces even greater risks today from a nuclear-armed Pyongyang.
But American response is a different matter. In part this is because US diplomats have had long experience negotiating with the North Koreans, and they have a better idea than most about how that closed regime really thinks; they’ve dealt with North Korean bluster before.
In part this is also because it is precisely the American military response that seems to be Pyongyang’s own measure or unit of analysis; when the United States decided to send its legendary B52 bombers on a test run in South Korea, the totalitarian government saw it as a military provocation.
There have been many American critics of the United States’ show of military power, not all of them peace activists. In one particular instance, level-headed American journalists took a close look at the controversial North Korean charts showing the path of a missile strike on the US mainland, and concluded that North Korean military planners were in fact geography-challenged.
Besides, Pyongyang has not demonstrated the ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile; the more realistic target for a North Korean strike would be Guam.
But would Pyongyang launch a strike, whether on Guam or on South Korea or Japan, that would invite a decisive military response, leading to the collapse of the regime? Even the paranoid is motivated by self-preservation.
It is on this point where we think American diplomats with greater familiarity with Pyongyang’s thinking need to convince their counterparts in the US military that aggressive posturing can only be ultimately counterproductive. The risk of miscalculation is frighteningly real.