The North Korean leader has realised bad behaviour gets attention. If Trump wants to push back against Pyongyang's weapons program, he needs to stop giving it to him
by Jean H Lee / October 10, 2017
Standing next to me at a military parade in Pyongyang, the North Korean government official was jovial despite the bone-chilling December fog. Just days earlier, scientists had tested missile technology by firing a satellite into space in defiance of the UN Security Council. The bureaucrat was nonplussed by the prospect of UN sanctions. In fact, he was downright buoyant. “A good future lies ahead,” he portended. Continued provocations, I told him, would only draw further punishment. “Unless we behave badly, no one pays attention,” he said, matter of factly.
This was 2013. In the four years since then, North Korea’s nuclear programme has only intensified. In the din of the rhetoric from both sides, we sometimes forget to step back and look at what’s driving the leader of this tiny, impoverished country to threaten the US, a superpower with the world’s largest economy.
North Korea does not have a suicidal death wish, as President Donald Trump claims. This is about survival—for the nation as a sovereign republic and for Kim Jong-un as a leader.
Traditionally, Korea has always seen itself as “a shrimp among whales,” a small country sandwiched between much larger powers. For centuries, foreign policy focused on warding off invasion and occupation, a struggle that has bred in Koreans a strong sense of nationalism and pride.
Drawing on this history, the North Korean regime has shaped a narrative that paints the “imperialist” Americans as the latest aggressors, conniving to invade North Korea and occupy the entire Korean Peninsula. State propaganda heralds Kim Jong-un as the man who will protect the nation from occupation.
The regime is hedging its bets on a nuclear programme that party propagandists have dubbed the country’s “treasured sword.” Nuclear-tipped, long-range ballistic missiles will make us untouchable, Kim tells his people. Bombs will boost the economy by spurring production, he has promised, and recent economic estimates from the Bank of Korea in the South Korean capital Seoul suggest the programme has been good for North Korea’s economy. The goal: to further cement his status as a man capable of leading and defending North Korea, a country whose leadership he inherited at 27.
To justify and rationalise the diversion of precious resources into the nuclear programme, Kim needs an outside threat. He needs to raise tensions abroad in order to give his people a reason to overlook the deprivations at home. The regime baits Washington—particularly Trump—with threats to provoke a reaction that the propagandists can use back home as “proof” of the US military threat.
With Trump lashing out at Kim on Twitter, the North Korean regime is getting exactly what the strategists need to feed the propaganda: Washington’s attention. Threats and sanctions do not cow the North Koreans into backing down; on the contrary, they embolden the regime to keep testing and perfecting its missiles and warheads, getting them closer, faster, to the goal of a nuclear missile. The threats from Trump give Kim the chance to burnish his credentials back home as a man important enough to face off against the president of the world’s most powerful nation.
If Trump wants to stop North Korea from threatening the US with nuclear weapons, he should start by tamping down the inflammatory rhetoric and letting sanctions speak for the global community. He is playing straight into a savvy, carefully-crafted strategy with the potential for very dangerous outcomes.