By Sean Welsh
Kim Jong-Un is like Roman Emperor Caligula but with nukes. Like the most decadent of the Caesars, he lives in a gilded palace, surrounded by concentric rings of Praetorian Guards running a network of informants that suppress dissent. Like Caligula, Kim came to absolute power in his twenties.
Many commentators attribute “rationality” to his regime but it is hard to see how Kim wins by escalating tensions. Firing rockets over Japan and threatening Guam attracts criticism and increases sanctions. Testing a nuclear bomb has alienated North Korea’s historical ally, China. If his principal goal is to perpetuate his rule as Supreme Leader for decades more, it is hard to see how this is achieved by playing “chicken” with the United States and alienating China.
Kim is gambling his country. What does he hope to win?
If his goal were simply to stay in power, it would be rational for him to stop his provocative missile launches over Japan, stop testing nuclear weapons, mend his relationship with China and let things calm down. However, he seems hell bent on demonstrating he can hit an American city with a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
North Korea suffered greatly due to US bombing in the Korean War. The idea North Korea could impose similar suffering on America no doubt has great domestic propaganda appeal but it puts the regime on a collision course with the United States, a superpower with a proven history of regime change.
US President Donald Trump has already shown how he will behave if “red lines” are crossed on his watch. He will use force. When Syrian government forces used chemical weapons and crossed such a line, Trump ordered a punitive strike, firing 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield.
Trump has said that he will not accept a North Korean ICBM that can threaten American cities. That is a red line that he has made very clear. The consequences of crossing this line are predictable and terrible.
Perhaps Kim is counting on nuclear weapons saving him from invasion? However, military technology has moved on from the Cold War. Contemporary US offensive operations involve a combination of Special Forces and drones that target enemy leadership. In the 2003 Iraq War, overwhelming air power was used to destroy enemy air defence and prevent enemy aircraft from taking off. In the event a military option is exercised in North Korea, the top priorities would be to prevent North Korean missiles from being launched and to decapitate the leadership by destroying commanders and communication networks. Kim Jong-Un would be killed or driven underground. Radio and TV frequencies would be jammed. Telephone exchanges and bridges would be destroyed. Drones, fighters and bombers would fill the skies of North Korea delivering shock and awe. If Kim did succeed in launching a nuclear missile and it detonated on an allied city, retaliation would be massive, swift and pitiless. North Korean cities would share the fate of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.
Why take this risk? Why not just calm down and be quiet?
It is unclear if Kim even realizes the magnitude of his gamble. North Korean military technology in the 2010s has barely reached the level US and Soviet military technology achieved in the 1960s and 1970s. The regime’s science and research effort is stunted by its isolation and by the fact that the regime does not trust anybody. Yet the regime’s propaganda uncritically advertises its great military might.
Kim is surrounded by those programmed to self-censor, flatter and lie from childhood to survive. He has ruthlessly purged anyone who poses a threat to his rule. There are no robust institutions to restrain him. In North Korea there is neither political opposition nor a free press. Surrounded as he is by yes men and having no experience of foreign leaders at all, Kim may well be entirely deluded. He may well believe his regime’s propaganda. Perhaps he is gambling his country because no one will tell him honestly what risks he is taking and how badly he will lose.
Delusion is a better explanation for Kim’s actions than rationality.
Given that he is playing chicken with a superpower that can obliterate him, it is hard to see Kim as a rational strategist. It is easier to see him as a third generation dictator with a weak grip on reality surrounded by yes men who will agree with whatever vainglorious ideas he comes up with. It is easier to see him as Caligula with nukes, a brutal figure corrupted by absolute power, doomed to die young.
The tragedy is that he may take huge numbers of innocent Koreans with him.
Sean Welsh is a researcher in robot ethics at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand
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