North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets scientists and technicians in the field of research into nuclear weapons. Photo: KCNA via Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets scientists and technicians in the field of research into nuclear weapons. Photo: KCNA via Reuters

Most people are not thinking this North Korea threat thing through.

Panicked Americans and Japanese fret that North Korea’s goal to attach a nuclear warhead to one of its missiles will make real the threats from Pyongyang to turn their two countries into seas of blood.

Then the American and South Korean engagers say Washington and Seoul should understand poor beleaguered North Korea. That means signing a peace treaty to replace the 63-year-old ceasefire in the Korean War.

Meantime, Donald J. Trump warns Korean and Japanese allies he will desert them unless they pay more of the cost of defending them. He adds that North Korea’s nuclear tests are somehow part of the “massive failure” of Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state.

And then you‘ve got your South Koreans who pretty much want to ignore Pyongyang and continue with business as usual. After all, it HAS been 63 years and Seoul hasn’t been blasted into oblivion.

To all of whom I say: Please DO think it through. If you do that, here’s what you may well conclude:

  • North Korea’s interest in maintaining an antagonistic policy toward Japan is largely a matter of window dressing for domestic politics. Tokyo is the hated former colonial power (1910-1945). Scaring the bejesus out of the Japanese with nightmares of atomic destruction goes over well with the base back home (starting with the military) and is an amusing ego feed for Kim Jong-un. There is, however, no plan to conquer Japan.
  • North Korea’s ruler, while crazy like a fox, is not (for now, at least) seriously bonkers enough that he’d intentionally get himself into a nuclear war with the United States.
  • The unwavering goal of the three generations of North Korean leaders has been and remains persuading the Americans to sign a peace treaty and remove both troops and weapons from South Korea. Only after that happens, at some future time when Washington is otherwise occupied and prevented from responding quickly, can the North move ahead with Southern conquest.
  • And, far from business as usual, if things reach such a point, the “What – Me Worry?” South Koreans can expect obliteration of their capital, Seoul, and most of the rest of the country. They can also expect an extreme version of ethnic cleansing intended to wipe out nearly 50 million people, the two thirds of the Korean nation that Pyongyang knows could never accept Kim Jong-un’s rule.

How do I know that grisly last part? Defector testimony, for one thing. I wrote about it in a book and it seems the powers that be in Pyongyang are unhappy with such reporting even now, more than a decade later. Most recently they turned down my application to participate in an innocuous economic press tour of the country. Shortly before that a pair of FBI agents visited my office to alert me that someone in Northeast Asia has been trying to hack into my email.

But beyond that, it simply stands to reason – contrary to the quaint hope of the engagers – there’s no way that a member of the Kim dynasty would settle for mere regime survival as the main goal.

Unable or unwilling to take up full-blooded pursuit of economic growth, because that would require second-guessing the policies of earlier Kim ruler-deities, Kim Jong-un doesn’t need to be a rocket scientist to see that the economic gap between North and South will continue to expand – until elements of the Northern citizenry become disgusted enough to kick him or a successor out.

So, does Kim just wait for the assassin’s bullet? Does he flee clutching the national fortune and set up housekeeping in Cannes? To both questions: No. Kim dynasts are raised to believe as an article of faith that the best defense is a great offense. Winning once and for all, taking over the entire Korean peninsula, totally eradicating the rival and with it the constant and intense pressure to change the Northern system, is the goal – and has been all along.

Why does that obvious fact fail to filter through to so many otherwise smart people in three of the countries most concerned? Maybe one reason is that all three are democracies. Changes in leadership personnel are frequent and, consequently, few are equipped to take the long view.

The North Korean regime does not share that handicap. Its system is about as far as it’s possible to get from democracy. While Kim’s purges are well publicized, they remove nowhere near the proportion of high-ranking officials who get pushed out every few years in our election-year versions of regime change.

When I first went to Pyongyang in 1979 I had a five-hour interview with the top foreign policy official, Kim Yong-nam (not an immediate royal family member; Kim is by far the most common Korean surname). He wanted me to persuade Washington to restore President Jimmy Carter’s canceled troop withdrawal plan – a forerunner of Trump’s current proposal.

Today Kim Yong-nam is the nominal head of state, sitting in for Kim Jong-un in diplomatic situations. Try to name a high-ranking member of the Carter administration who’s still in office.

Bradley K Martin

Bradley K Martin has focused on Asia and the Pacific as a journalist since 1977 and has worked as bureau chief for The Baltimore Sun, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and Asia Times. At Bloomberg News he was chief North Korea watcher. He is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty, a history, and of the speculative novel Nuclear Blues, set in a near-future North Korea after denuclearization and peace talks have failed.

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