North Korea is not as nutty as it seems. There is method in the apparent madness of dictator Kim Jong Un as he fires missiles into the Pacific and threatens nuclear war.
It is the logic of a regime with its back to the wall, one that calculates — not entirely inaccurately — that it has no friends and little choice.
In the West, North Korea is treated as a bizarre anomaly — a country on the brink of starvation that spends all of its time saber-rattling, a Communist state governed by a hereditary dynasty of weirdos.
Allegations that Kim had his half-brother assassinated in a Malaysian airport with the toxic nerve agent VX might seem unbelievable in most other contexts (although the American CIA did contemplate something similar — assassinating Fidel Castro with an exploding cigar). But North Korea has a habit of doing the unbelievable.
This is, after all, the country that kidnapped a well-known South Korean film director and his actress wife in the ’70s because Kim’s father, then heir apparent, wanted to make movies.
But in reality, the weirdos have not been that weird. North Korea sees itself at war with the United States and its allies because officially it is. A peace treaty to end the 1950-53 Korean War has never been negotiated or signed.
Indeed, even the terms of the 1953 armistice that suspended the fighting have not been fully honoured.
The armistice called for all foreign troops to leave the Korean Peninsula. But roughly 28,500 American soldiers are still there. The armistice called for the peninsula to be free of nuclear weapons. But the U.S. didn’t withdraw its nukes until 1991.
The New York Times reports that for the past three years, U.S government cyberwarriors have been secretly attempting to sabotage North Korea’s missile development program.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise that the North mistrusts American intentions. America’s invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 2003 underlined what could happen to regimes that weren’t nuclear-armed. Three years later, Pyongyang conducted its first successful nuclear test.
Throughout, the U.S. and North Korea have been at cross-purposes. America is unwilling to engage in direct talks leading to a formal peace until the North abandons its nuclear program. The North, meanwhile, insists that relations between it and the U.S. must be fully normalized before anything can happen.
The U.S. and its allies have persuaded the United Nations to impose sanctions on North Korea in an effort to isolate it economically. North Korea responds by focusing production on a commodity that all nations want — armaments.
The result, as a UN report noted this week, is that sanctions haven’t worked. North Korea continues to sell arms to Africa and minerals to China.
The Chinese huff and puff. Last month they stopped buying coal from North Korea.
But as historian Bruce Cumings writes, ultimately China will balk at any solution that threatens the existence of the government in Pyongyang.
The Chinese may find an outlaw regime on their southeastern border troublesome. They would find a pro-American regime on that border even more so.
And so the dance continues. The North Koreans keep testing missiles, as they did Monday when they launched four more into the Sea of Japan.
The U.S., rightly worried that Pyongyang may eventually be able to strike targets in North America, is setting up an anti-missile system in South Korea. That, in turn, alarms the Chinese, who view such a system as aimed, in part, at them.
Japan, meanwhile, feels under direct threat. The prospect of a nuclear-armed North may be all that is needed to let Prime Minister Shinzo Abe persuade his compatriots to end the country’s constitutional ban on making war.
In short, North Korea has the region in an uproar.
None of this seems to bother the regime in Pyongyang. In fact, it is probably chuffed. It is showing the world that it cannot be ignored.
The U.S. and its friends may think they are encouraging North Korea to compromise. But to a regime built around the ideology of self-reliance, compromise equals failure.
As historian Cumings puts it, pigheadedness is part of the North’s historic behaviour pattern.
It survived one war with the most powerful nation on Earth. If necessary, it reckons, it can survive another.