The portrayals of both North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and U.S. president Donald Trump as bombastic egoists reacting emotionally seem to have become hackneyed as tensions continue to rise on the Korean Peninsula. But reducing the sophomoric rhetoric between the two men to mere chauvinistic posturing fails to reveal the genius underlying the Trump administration’s pressure campaign.
President Trump’s tweets, while drawing the ire of both sides of the aisle, shatter the North Korean image of Kim Jong-un and force him to react from a position of weakness on terms dictated by the United States. To understand why Trump’s rhetoric is so effective, one must consider the president’s target audience.
Kim Jong-un spent his early life in Switzerland, and was thrust into the spotlight prematurely due both to his father’s death and to the various inadequacies and indiscretions rendering his two elder brothers unfit to lead. To compensate for the twentysomething’s inexperience and lack of notoriety, North Korean officials began a relentless campaign to create the supreme myth of their new supreme leader. In an effort to reverse the growing resentment towards senior leaders brought on by his father’s reclusiveness and the memory of the terrible famine of the 1990s, through which the current generation came of age, Kim Jong-un was modeled as the reincarnation of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
Prior to taking power, the younger Kim attended the Kim Il-sung Military Academy to establish his military bona fides before being commissioned a four-star general and named vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. The myth exaggerated Kim Jong-un’s military prowess through the Pyongyang propaganda machine, which has been a continuous font of photos appearing to show him planning military movements, videos in which he is instructing his generals, and fiery statements defending the Korean people against the acrimonious Americans and their South Korean puppet. There are even intimations that the shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island and the sinking of the Republic of Korea Navy vessel Cheonan in 2010 were attributed to Kim as a means of increasing his credibility.
Much like his grandfather, this overweight, jolly and ever-smiling leader frequently appears in public for engagements and meetings with the Korean people, and to personally deliver orders to his military forces in the field—something his father, Kim Jong-il, who is said to have suffered from a severe stutter, rarely did. To further distance himself from the anathema of his father’s legacy, the young leader embarked on a savage campaign of over three hundred executions to rid his regime of Kim Jong-il’s inner circle. His eradication of senior leaders, while seen from the outside as a sign of paranoia, may have served the greater purpose of separating him from the taciturn and corrupt regime of his father in the minds of the rising generation of North Koreans.
Having been educated in Switzerland, traveled extensively abroad and studied China’s rise to prosperity, Kim Jong-un is keenly aware of the precarious summit on which he sits. The North Korean black market consists of a capitalistic network of illicit goods smuggled in from China and other neighboring countries. While smuggling in North Korea is punishable by death, it has been largely ignored by Kim Jong-un’s regime. One likely reason for this is Kim’s understanding of the necessity to control the transformation of North Korea from a socialist state with a command market to a dictatorial capitalist economy that trades on the global market.
“The success of a transition from a command economy seems to depend on the extent to which individuals in the socialist economy remember the institutional background of its early capitalism,” wrote Charles Kindleberger in reference to Poland’s transition in his seminal work Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises. “Such memory is more important to transitional success than the speed of decontrols and of privatization of state monopolies.”
In order for Kim to remain in power, he needs both to foster an underground economy so as to establish a memory of capitalism and to reinforce his command of the military to thwart any would-be mutineers. By conducting more than twenty ballistic-missile launches and two nuclear detonations this year while keeping his military constantly on a wartime footing, Kim sustains his tyrannical control throughout the ranks while appearing to be much the same hawkish defender of the fatherland his grandfather was. By allowing capitalism to survive in the shadows, he maintains control over the gradual ascendance of a centrally managed market economy in the same vein as the pioneer of China’s economic awakening, Deng Xiaoping.
What Kim Jong-un needs is time and money.
Revamping North Korea’s society and economy while maintaining control over international influence inside the hermit kingdom is a delicate task. Opening China to the global market took Deng Xiaoping eleven years of adroit political maneuvering and significant foreign direct investment by Western corporations to achieve his “Four Modernizations” in the agricultural, industrial, science-and-technology and military sectors.
As sanctions linked to United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2375 sanctions begin to tighten the noose around the neck of the North Korean economy, Kim Jong-un is looking for alternative revenue streams to keep his economy afloat. Recent cyber activities link the Lazarus Group, North Korean–backed cyber actors, with various crimes. Those crimes include the WannaCry ransomware attack affecting over 150 countries, a Bangladeshi bank heist in which thieves absconded with over $81 million and, most recently, the theft of over $60 million from the Taiwan Far Eastern International Bank. This pervasive and increasing state-sponsored cybercrime for financial gain indicates the North Korean government is seeking alternative forms of revenue to augment its stagnant economy. With UN sanctions taking their toll, these activities will likely become more prevalent as North Korea continues to seek funding to expand its nuclear and cyber capabilities.
Yong Suk Lee, deputy assistant director of the CIA’s Korea Mission Center, described North Korea as a “political organism that thrives on confrontation.” Historically, confrontation and the threat of nuclear war have united the North Korean people behind their leaders and brought the international community to the negotiating table, yielding both time and money for Pyongyang.
But not this time.
Following North Korea’s September 3 nuclear test, President Trump addressed the United Nations and sent Kim Jong-un a very public message: “If the U.S. if forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
The Trump administration’s all-or-nothing approach to North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile ambitions is forcing Kim Jong-un into a corner from which he only has two choices: further escalate tensions or withdraw his primary bargaining chip. In order for Kim to continue appearing strong to the North Korean people and to the international community, he will need to continuously increase his rhetoric and back it with action. Ultimately, Kim Jong-un wants three things: for North Korea to be treated as an equal on the world stage by the United States and China, to usher in the incipient capitalist economy on his terms, and, above all, to retain power. However, in order for him to achieve these goals, he needs support from China to keep the United States at bay.
But China, weary of playing peacekeeper between North Korea and the civilized world, has yet to play its trump card. On July 11, 1961, China and North Korea signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, which requires both nations to oppose any country or coalition seeking to harm the other. North Korea holds this treaty to be the guarantor of Chinese protection. China, however, could use North Korea’s belligerence to nullify the treaty. Article 1 states that each contracting party shall “make every effort to safeguard the peace of Asia and the world and the security of all peoples.” If North Korea strikes first, China will be forced to renege on the treaty or face international censure. If this happens, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea will, for the first time in its history, find itself truly isolated.
China, in a last-ditch effort to rein in its wayward ally, has already violated—perhaps as a threat—Article 3 of the treaty by signing UNSCR 2375 on September 11. Article 3 states that “neither contracting party shall conclude any alliance . . . [n]or take part in any bloc . . . directed against the other.” By imposing limits on oil exports to North Korea, banning imports of North Korean textiles, and limiting North Korean labor abroad, Beijing sent a clear cease-and-desist message to Pyongyang.
The Trump administration’s incessant and boisterous pressure campaign has forced Kim’s hand in crossing an internationally accepted code of conduct. These breaches of protocol—specifically, the testing of a thermonuclear weapon and two iterative ballistic-missile launches over Japan—require China to condemn Pyongyang’s actions. Without China’s protective umbrella, Kim is finding himself ever more exposed and contemplative of his next move.
And this is the brilliance of the Trump administration’s approach.
Both North Korea and China are being backed into a corner before North Korea possesses the ability to strike the U.S. mainland with a nuclear weapon. If Kim Jong-un were to launch a ballistic-missile strike against South Korea or Guam, then he would be signing his own death warrant and inviting the full force of a trilateral strike from the United States, South Korea and Japan while China is forcibly sidelined. In terms of defending the homeland, President Trump’s risk calculus is spot-on.