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North Korea: The Kims’ cheat-and-retreat game

It is too early to guess how the latest storm triggered by North Korea’s behavior might end. Will this lead to a “surgical” strike on its nuclear sites by the US? Or will it cause “a global catastrophe,” as Russian President Vladimir Putin, never shy of hyperbole, warns? If past experience is an indicator, the latest crisis is likely to fade away, as did the previous six triggered by North Korea since the 1970s.
Under the Kim dynasty, North Korea — in an established pattern of behavior — has been an irritant for the US, not to mention neighbors, such as South Korea, Japan, and even China and Russia. By one reading, that pattern, known as “cheat and retreat,” could be laughed at as a sign of weakness disguised as strength. However, if only because nuclear weapons are involved, one would have to take the provocation seriously.
The Kim dynasty has relied on that ambiguity as part of its survival strategy for decades. It has worked because the Kims did not overreach, sticking to strict rules of brinkmanship. Contemplating their situation, they know that they had few good options.
One option is to embark on a genuine path to peaceful reunification of the Korean Peninsula. But in that case, the Kim regime would be doomed. That is what happened to Communist East Germany when it was swallowed by the German Federal Republic.
At 52 million, South Korea’s population is twice that of the North. As the world’s 13th-largest economy, with a gross national product (GNP) of almost $2 trillion, it is also far wealthier. South Korea’s annual income per head is close to $40,000, compared to the North’s $1,700, making the land of the Kims poorer than even Yemen and South Sudan, in 213th place out of 220 nations.
The other option is for North Korea to invade the South, to impose unification under its own system. That too is unrealistic. Even without the US “defense umbrella,” South Korea is no pushover. Barring nuclear weapons, it has an arsenal of modern weapons that the North could only dream of. The South could mobilize an army of more than 800,000, three times larger than that of the North.
Pyongyang has the advantage of nuclear weapons, but it will not be easy to use them against the South without contaminating the North as well. Almost 70 percent of the peninsula’s estimated 80 million people live on less than 15 percent of its total area of around 200,000 sq. km, which is precisely where nuclear weapons would presumably be used. In other words, the Kims cannot rule over the whole peninsula, either by peaceful means or force.
The Kims’ other option is to keep quiet and steer clear of provocations, but that too is high-risk. It would mean peaceful coexistence with the South, which could lead to an exchange of visits and growing trade, as well as investment by the South. In such a situation, the South’s wealth, freedom and seductive lifestyle would be a permanent challenge to the austere lifestyle that the Kims offer.
How could the Kims claim legitimacy and persuade North Koreans to ignore the attraction of the model presented by the South? One way is to wave the banner of independence through the “self-reliance” doctrine, which says that while those in the South have bread, those in the North have pride because the South is a “slave house of the Americans,” while the North challenges US “hegemony.”

The Kim dynasty has relied on ambiguity as part of its survival strategy for decades. It has worked because the Kims did not overreach, sticking to strict rules of brinkmanship.

Amir Taheri


The Kims know that by picking a quarrel with the US, they upgrade their regime. But such a quarrel must not go beyond certain limits and force the US to hit back. So in every crisis provoked by the Kims since the 1970s, North Korea has never gone beyond certain limits. And each time, it has obtained concessions and favors from the US in exchange for cooling down the artificial crisis.
The pattern started under former US President Jimmy Carter and reached its peak under former President Bill Clinton, who sent his Secretary of State Madeleine Albright on a pilgrimage to Pyongyang and offered to build two nuclear reactors for the Kims. One overlooked fact is that during the past four decades, the US has helped save North Korea from three major famines.
Upgrading yourself by picking a quarrel with the US is not an art practiced only by the Kims. The Soviets did it from the 1960s onward. The Cuban missile crisis was one example; it helped create the image of the USSR as a superpower, later symbolized by “summits.”
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Communist China, regarding the US as a paper tiger, did the same by occasional attacks on Quemoy and Matsu islands, and saber-rattling against Taiwan. The Khomeinists in Iran upgraded their ramshackle regime by raiding the US Embassy in Tehran, keeping them on American TV for 444 days.
The Kims’ strategy has worked because successive US administrations have played the role written for them in Pyongyang, pretending outrage but ending up offering concessions. Clinton had a beautiful analysis: “I ask myself: Can I kill these people tomorrow? If yes, why do it today?” The Kims have banked on that analysis, and have been proven right. Regardless of what North Korea does, the US will not try to do today what it thinks it can do tomorrow.
The Kim-generated crisis also suits China, which does not want a united Korea that could become another Japan: An economic powerhouse and a potential military obstacle to Beijing’s regional ambitions. Russia, too, is happy to see the Kims’ shindig diverting world attention from Putin’s shenanigans while exposing the US as weak and indecisive.
And what if the Kim-scripted crisis also suits US President Donald Trump by providing weeks of diversion from other problems? The Kims did not invent governance by crisis, but have proven to be among its most ardent practitioners.
I know journalists are not supposed to predict the future. But let us break the rule by guessing that the latest crisis will fizzle out in time for the Olympic Winter Games next February in South Korea. Pyongyang has achieved its objective of upgrading its regime and cheating on its nuclear arsenal without suffering serious consequences. It has no interest in pushing things over the edge.

• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books. Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.