Young Kim is not weird. One should not underestimate him!”
That’s a description of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un by a Japanese defence expert, speaking on the condition of anonymity. A worried neighbour, Japan has a good understanding of this hermit kingdom and its reclusive leader who makes rare, strange, orchestrated public appearances.
How can this young dictator in a small, poor, isolated country have the gumption to take on the US, especially when the unpredictable President Donald Trump threatens a “fire and fury” nuclear attack, if North Korea continues launching missiles. Disturbingly, Kim has not backed down. He continues his nuclear-related activities.
The trajectory of Kim and his nation is a guide to the art of survival. Small is not beautiful, but it is certainly no handicap if you are clear-eyed, deft at playing big powers against each other, ruthless, combative, cunning and secretive.
Kim was probably born on January 8, sharing his birthday with Elvis Presley of all people. Doubts remain if he was born in 1982. The CIA believes he was born two years later, but the ruling coterie chose the 70th birth anniversary of North Korean Founder Kim Il-sung and 40th birth anniversary of Kim Jong-il, grandfather and father, respectively, to imbue Kim Jong-un with divinely ordained destiny. Kim enrolled in a Swiss school. He was indifferent to studies, girls and parties. But liked bondage-themed porn, Korean songs, gooey sauce, Japanese Playstation, latest American gadgets, movies and Nike shoes. He adored American basketball star Michael Jordan. Though chubby and quiet, he had a funny bone and was fiercely competitive on the basketball court. That trait catapulted him to where he is now. Ruthlessness helps him stay there. After his reigning father died of a heart attack, Kim’s aunt and uncle helped to entrench him as successor. He then executed them. His half-brother was assassinated in Kuala Lumpur airport earlier this year. In the world he inhabits, it is kill or get killed.
North Korea’s goose-stepping army, corny news bulletins, and public and generals glorifying their “Dear Leader” make Kim and his country seem ridiculous. But, Kim is not the fool western memes make him out to be. Though fearsome, he can be funny, even self-deprecating. During a hospital visit, he asked a 5-year-old convalescing orphan, how he passed his time. The programmed child replied, “Watching my Dear Leader on TV”. Kim murmured, “It could not have been fun.”
Since the 1990s, North Korea devoted itself to one goal: illicitly building its nuclear deterrence. It did so with help from clandestine foreign state actors and the black market, especially in the former Soviet Union. As a small country surrounded by known enemies and undependable allies, North Korea believed going nuclear was its sole route to survival. Underlying the sabre rattling, missile testing and fiery rhetoric is a clear intent—accept our nuclear capability as you do with Pakistan and Israel; then we can talk and resolve outstanding issues. The US knows this.
No sanctions can work without Russia and China—North Korea’s allies. But, recognising that China can become undependable, North Korea shrewdly played both China and Russia in furthering its survival as an independent nation. Their shared history makes some South Koreans secretly admire their northern neighbour, especially because the land of Hyundai and Samsung has never sent a missile into space; they hate Japan and China much more because of past brutal occupations. Former White House strategist Steve Bannon admitted, there is no way US can attack North Korea unless it is prepared to let ten million South Koreans die in a retaliatory strike. For all we know, Kim may be telling his generals, “This cannot be fun for the Americans.” But, it’s downright dangerous for all.
Pratap is an author and journalist.