With a suspected role in the assassination of his estranged half-brother and a string of increasingly aggressive missile tests, the North Korean leader appears to be testing the patience not just of Washington but also his key ally, China. It’s a high-stakes game that may push the region into the worst conflict it has ever seen. Kim Jong Un’s actions have a ruthless internal logic, however, – and while he has a plan, there is no sign that anyone has a coherent strategy for stopping him.
On Tuesday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry warned that Washington and Pyongyang were racing towards an unnecessary but dangerous confrontation, calling on North Korea to listen to international condemnation of its nuclear and missile tests.
The likelihood of Kim listening to advice or threats from the United States, China or anywhere else seems practically nonexistent, however.
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What the North Korean leader wants is simple – to secure his own survival and that of his regime. That means annihilating any potential claimants to the role, and acquiring atomic weaponry fearsome enough to deter any outsider from trying to bring him down.
Just as important as building the ability to strike abroad has been entrenching power at home. When his father died in December 2011, handing him the country, many outside observers wondered whether the younger Kim – then in his late twenties – could assert control over older, more established members of the elite. A South Korean think tank estimated in December that more than 300 people had been executed since he took office, including 140 senior officials and at least one of his uncles.
With the death of his half-sibling Kim Jong Nam at Kuala Lumpur international Airport on Feb. 13, the younger Kim will have further entrenched his power. The older brother was not seen as a threat, but if Kim did have a role in the murder the demonstration of North Korea’s reach – and willingness to take risks – will resonate within the establishment.
China’s financial and military support has long been vital to the North Korean regime’s survival, with Beijing maintaining close relations with both Kim’s father and other key officials. The older Kim brother lived for years in China, suspected to have been protected by Chinese intelligence in part for his connections to his uncle Jang Song Thaek, one of the most important power brokers in the North until his execution by Kim shortly after he took power.
Five days after the killing of Kim Jong Nam and six days after Pyongyang tested a ballistic missile in violation of international sanctions, Beijing announced it was suspending coal purchases from North Korea, essentially cutting off one of Pyongyang’s few reliable sources of international currency – and one of the most public shows of frustration by Beijing towards its neighbor in recent history.
Monday’s test of a quartet of ballistic missiles – coming just as China’s communist party settles down to its annual Congress – will have irritated Beijing further. This week’s action again demonstrated Kim has no intention of bowing to the demands of any external power. It was also a reminder that U.S. attempts to frustrate North Korea’s weapons developments have proved largely unsuccessful.
It may be a coincidence, but this weekend the New York Times reported what it described as an ongoing but not always effective U.S. campaign to interfere with North Korea’s nuclear program.
Some of Pyongyang’s rockets have suffered largely unexplained failures, and experts believe the United States may have prevented scientists from receiving useful data even from successful missile launchers. Progress, however, continues.
According to the Times, U.S. officials have been considering a range of new tactics including direct military strikes on North Korean nuclear facilities or what they call “left of launch” actions that would hope to neutralize North Korean missiles before takeoff.
Whether such tactics by the US or others could or will ever work is far from clear. Pyongyang and the Russian scientists it has hired are merely trying to replicate technology that the United States, Russia and China perfected in the 1950s or soon after. That makes cyber attacks potentially less effective.
Successive U.S. administrations have long hoped that China would be able to persuade North Korea to slow its nuclear progress and perhaps open up to the world. Chinese officials have repeatedly attempted to reassure Washington as well as regional players – particularly Japan and South Korea – that they have Pyongyang under control. In the Kim era, however, such reassurances are increasingly unconvincing.
A credible North Korean nuclear weapons program might be in Kim’s interest, but it is a double-edged sword for China. The more Pyongyang pushes forward with its weapons developments, the more other countries in the region will demand the presence of U.S. antiballistic missile batteries. That’s something China – which is modernizing its own ballistic missile arsenal to intimidate its regional enemies – could certainly do without.
At worst, events in North Korea might persuade Tokyo or Seoul to pursue their own atomic weapons programs.
Beijing finds itself in an unenviable position – and Kim likely knows it. It can, of course, go further than the coal embargo to increase economic pressure on Pyongyang. What it wants to avoid, however, is the regime unraveling. China has no desire to see a united Korea, particularly one that might result in U.S. forces based on China’s borders. Nor does it want to deal with economic collapse in North Korea and the potential flow of refugees.
At the heart of Kim’s strategy is the belief that no one is willing to confront him. To secure his position, he must push forward with his weapons programs as quickly as possible, making North Korea unassailable by the time anyone changes their minds.
It’s a reasonable position. Other dictatorial leaders who gave up their weapons programs such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi paid a high price for those decisions.
But it also makes the world more dangerous. A man who would order the murder of his half-brother in a crowded airport – if South Korean intelligence is correct – seems unlikely to hesitate if he thought annihilating many more would secure his survival – or perhaps if he felt he had nothing left to lose.
(Peter Apps is Reuters global affairs columnist, writing on international affairs, globalization, conflict and other issues. He is founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank in London, New York and Washington. Before that, he spent 12 years as a reporter for Reuters covering defense, political risk and emerging markets. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party. @pete_apps)