Dancing with Kim Jong Un

I want to second Steve’s thoughts about Kim Jong Un and North Korea. The recent words and moves by North Korea strike me as saber rattling for a purpose (or, more likely, purposes). One purpose, as Steve says, is to obtain new concessions from the U.S. Another purpose may well be to shore up the dictator’s standing with the military.

It has been reported that Kim Jong Un has turned to an “economic reformer” to try and boost the North Korean economy. It’s anyone’s guess as to what constitutes an economic reformer in the context of North Korea (the concept probably has less reality than a moderate jihadist). But if Kim Jong Un is perceived in his country as flirting with economic reform, then he may need to offset the heresy by asserting himself on the world stage.

I always viewed Kim Jong Ill, the current tyrant’s father, as a classic late Communist, conservative dictator interested above all in clinging to power. As such, he was unlikely to take action that might put his regime at risk, and extremely unlikely to put his physical well-being (and sex-life) at risk. Accordingly, it seemed almost unimaginable that Kim Jong Ill would start a war. The risk his North Korea posed lay in the transfer of nuclear technology to other hostile forces.

It’s certainly possible that Kim Jong Un is less conservative than his father was. But he’d have to be crazy to start a war. Putting Dennis Rodman to one side, I see no evidence that the North Korean dictator is irrational. As Steve explained, the dictator’s conduct can more plausibly be viewed as shrewd.

Obama’s response also seems shrewd. As with Kim Jong Un, Obama’s foreign policy is mostly about his domestic policy. Above all, he wants to avoid monumental events that might undercut the popularity he must maintain to be a transformative president. In addition, when the cost is low, he would like to appear tough enough towards certain adversaries to gain “extra credit” with the American public.

Uniquely among enemy foreign states, North Korea presents the prospect, however remote, of inflicting direct, devastating military damage on portions of our homeland. Talk about a monumentally tragic event. That’s why Steve’s prediction of another appeasement deal is reasonable.

But North Korea also presents Obama with the opportunity to pick up “extra credit” by talking up the threat and making showy moves in response. I’m for Obama’s showy moves. And talking up the threat, as opposed to being dismissive (the administration’s initial reaction), might help Kim Jong Un obtain domestic mileage from the latest drama, thus satisfying the dictator.

But, as Steve suggests, if the North Korean threat is serious, the best response is a preemptive strike, not the current dance. For what it’s worth, I just don’t think the threat is serious.


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