North Korea lies in darkness, in more ways than one. Photo: iStock
North Korea lies in darkness, in more ways than one. Photo: iStock

Kim Jong-un has been out of public sight for two weeks. Preparations for another spectacular missile launch that could possibly occur in August have been rumored to be under way for some time, at least according to statements from North Korea’s state-controlled media.

August might be a propitious time: It is a time North Korea devotes to celebration of the end of World War II. The surrender of Japan was announced on August 15, and signed on September 2, 1945.

The current month has other Korea-relevant dates. August 29, 1910, is the date Japan began its annexation of the Korean Peninsula. August is also a time when North Korea marks the nominal birthday of Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung (whose actual birthday is believed to be April 16, 1912).

Pundits who think the current Kim remains in active control of North Korean events say his presence is needed to make preparations for some kind of near-term missile-based show of force. Kim was similarly absent last July, just before his last provocative show of missile might.

Nonetheless, it is a bit odd that given all the possible “anniversary dates” in August, and given the initial forceful nature of the threat of action aimed at Guam, that no precise date for a show of force has been given.

What could be going on? Kim might be frightened. He knows the foreign-policy rules of Niccolo Machiavelli – outlined below – as well as we do. He knows that, contrary to the advice of Machiavelli (who says inaction in the face of existential threat means defeat), he cannot act.

He faces a dilemma. He knows it is dangerous to launch a new missile.  He knows Donald Trump is not like any previous US president. Kim is not suicidal. But he also knows, from his study of the axioms laid out in Machiavelli’s The Prince, that he cannot step back from his previous strategy (conducted in a past time of Western vacillation) bluster, threat and intimidation. Unable to resolve the dilemma, he runs and hides.

We don’t know if Kim is frozen. But so far, he has been at least dilatory. He can’t be sure whether to send another provocative but actually harmless missile “into the air”. (There is a possibility Trump’s “fire and fury” threat was hot air, and if so Kim looks tough and Trump loses face.)

Another uncertain path for Kim is actually to drop one or more missiles into the sea around Guam.

A third choice is to fail to make any show of strength during the remainder of the month of August, and risk looking weak, especially in the eyes of his (possibly mutinous) generals. His “disappearance” and the lack of action so far this month are facts that do, in our judgment, lend some strength to the surmise that Kim is “frozen” and therefore weakened. Weakened enough to provide an opening to attack him, from within or without.

If Kim is, at least for the moment, paralyzed by indecision, now is the right moment to take him down. If he is frightened, his immediate circle will know it, and will be motivated to remove him themselves.  That process could bring, at a minimum, short-run chaos to North Korea, and could set off an accidental war.

A much better outcome for all is for “us” (defined as all great powers, China, the US and Japan) having a national interest to conduct Kim’s exit from the Korean Peninsula. Even Kim should prefer our plan rather than the fate that his mutinous generals would mete out, as it would keep him alive. Not that he cares much for the wider consequences, but our suggestion also provides a path for a better future for the entire area and its people.

We here present a Korea plan, conditional on the possibility that he is seriously frightened or at least frozen (unable to either halt or launch the new missile shot “suggested by his generals” or comply with or defy President Trump’s command that he not do so) that is consistent with the inimitable Machiavelli’s “rules” of foreign policy: Ours is a classical and conservative idea.

We emphasize the “chess game” side of our story: If Kim is a really good student of Machiavelli, like that first, great political scientist, he will happily “leave Florence” and retire in (guarded in the case of Kim) exile to his writing desk.

China had been, at least in the recent past, before its new destiny as a restored Great Power became evident, playing a defensive, even passive chess game. The idea was survival and acceptance, especially acceptance of the too-close presence of Western Great Powers, operating on China’s very borders.

Today, China is playing a new game. Everywhere on the world chess board, China is “taking pieces” and “controlling squares”.

Our plan shows how China’s “queen/emperor” can move to “board center” in the Korea part of the Great Game. Following our plan, and taking advantage of Kim’s fright, China takes Kim Jong-un off the field and takes his “square”. America is only relieved of a threat. In contrast, China acquires Kim’s “horse/military asset” and is seen by those who score the game to be the active player.

During a press conference on November 30, 1950, US president Harry Truman said he was prepared to authorize the use of atomic weapons in order to achieve peace in Korea. In less than five months, the president did a “take-back”. Not good chess. Trump will play better. America’s five-star general – Douglas MacArthur – lost his job as commander of United Nations troops in Korea on April 11, 1951, because he took the vacillating politician’s rhetoric seriously.

At the time of the ongoing Korean War, China had joined North Korea in opposing the UN troops (mainly American) who were aiding South Korean soldiers in their war with Kim Jong-un’s grandfather’s army. From that day to this, Western words of warning to North Korea have proved empty.

Today, only action will suffice. What action is most efficient? It will require a truly Machiavellian partnership, much of it secret, among Xi Jinping, Shinzo Abe and Donald Trump.

Finding a solution to the Korea issue is important – millions of lives are at risk. We have gone to Machiavelli, the master of foreign-policy axiomatic logic, in order to defend the structure of our plan.

(The plan? Kidnap Kim, secure and remove all nuclear weapons, assets and personnel to an off-peninsula Chinese site, instantly re-establish an Asia-familiar stable North Korean China-run stable government, do minimum disturbance to the current real distribution of power in the region, and serve the national interests of China, the US, Japan, and even that of a reconstituted North Korea.)

What political axioms are consistent with any successful foreign policy? Prior to all the rules listed hereafter is this Prime Commandment: If destiny has taken a hand, as is the case if Kim is in hiding, STRIKE.

Once the fates have opened the door to action, the striker should follow these axioms.

First, attempt no more, and risk no more, but never fail to do all that is necessary to serve the national interest.

Second, The Prince has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.

Third, protecting, advancing and serving those interests are the most important duties of The Prince.

Fourth, secrecy, double-dealing, pretense and inconsistency are ignoble for an individual, but generally necessary for The Prince.

Fifth, when words between Princes fail to undo acrimony separating them, force is necessary and inevitable.

Sixth, a Prince who fails to crush his antagonist when his nation’s interests are in peril, and as well any Prince who displays cowardice or fear when his very existence is in play, will lose legitimacy, respect and office.

Our suggested plan passes these tests.

Axioms 1 and 5

Kidnapping is cheaper than war, and kidnapping is all that is needed in a dictatorship as “perfect” as is Kim’s.

He is not supported by a vast “conspiracy” of warlords, landlords, “bosses”, loyal family members and local elites. Indeed, he has committed a classic error: Motivated by hubris and arrogance, he, along with his father and grandfather, tore up Korea’s ancient roots of competing authority (in the West these would be the nobles, churchmen, aristos and the rich.)

He should have made a Devil’s bargain with them, to share booty in exchange for surrendered power. But instead, in the tradition of his family, he killed his half-brother, and had an uncle torn by dogs. It is a way to be feared, but not to gain loyalty.

He now gives his generals “gifts” of cars, women and luxuries. But bought-and-paid guardians can be flipped by merely giving them triple or quadruple the going rate. If they are guaranteed metaphorical prepaid air tickets to Paris or Los Angeles, where they will find keys to footlockers full of gold coins, they will look away.

Moreover, if some of those generals smell the fear given off by a Kim in hiding, they will turn, in hope of saving their own futures, keeping open both possibilities, of a life at home or abroad.

When the moment to strike comes, Kim’s hiding place is discovered.  The kidnapping is accomplished by, say, a drone, helicopter, air-covered thunderclap of 300 aircraft- and submarine-launched missiles striking the ground all at once (just as in Syria) in a 3am shock-and-awe firestorm, just prior to the landing of 3,000 men dedicated to taking Kim, or what is left of him, to another part of this or the next world. If Kim really is frightened, he may welcome the strike force as a drowning man welcomes the lifeguard. (Three is a kind of magic number in human affairs: three branches of government, three natures of God, the Three Kingdoms – England, Wales and Scotland – of Great Britain, and three essays from us.)

It sounds fantastical, but such a grab costs much less in blood and treasure than would just the first exchange of artillery and munitions fire on the opening day of a standard war. Therefore, kidnapping in the manner outlined meets the first axiom requirement: It is enough, but no more than needed to have highest assurance of success.

Axioms 2 and 4

These axioms tell us that the national partners engaged in the grab are rationally the major powers who cynically put aside differences in the name of interests in common and at stake.

The first realistic nation is China. President Xi works hand-in-glove with President Trump, all the while claiming to eliminate the “threat” of an American unification of the Peninsula (something that never was a realistic outcome. China put 300,000 men into the field in the 1950s to prevent it, and would again).

Xi supplies manpower, takes the blame for the raid, and installs a China-obedient mild-mannered North Korean government. Acting as a Prince, Xi shows himself to be no friend of Kim, but rather a Leader who keeps stable and quiet his bordering states – an essential interest for China.

The replacement China-dependent North Korean leadership (hidden underground until the right moment) instantly takes power, proclaims to all the world its allegiance to President Xi, announces its peaceful nature, “willingly” hands to China all its atomic assets, human and hardware, eliminates any Kim supporters who cannot be bought off, and expresses its joy at being rid of the Kim Cancer.

The next nation to see the wisdom of real politic is the US. The Americans supply the hardware, the super-weapons, key manpower and heavy air and sea assets.

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, fearlessly and hypocritically tells the world how much she deplores this unwarranted expansion of China’s influence in the Peninsula. Most who hear the speech know full well that nothing has really changed: China’s “ownership” of North Korea is evident rather than “secret”.

In fact, the US is happy the Peninsula is opened up Hong Kong style. Indeed, the solid border at the 38th Parallel, minus the provocations of Kim, allows the US to economize its Peninsula military footprint with no loss of face, while trading with an economically accessible (and in that sense usefully united) entire peninsula.

Japan supplies bases, technical support, port facilities and perhaps some sophisticated manpower. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, will be a fierce cheerleader in support of the kidnapping, since his country is now free from atomic blackmail. Abe has new trade options with Japan’s old colony. Japan has a rare opportunity to “make nice” with China, by way of not objecting – in fact by supporting – the open move that makes North Korea, long ago part of Japan’s sphere, a Chinese vassal state. It is a price Japan is happy to pay.

Axioms 3 and 6

Kim, his father and grandfather before him (no fools they, not then and not now) kept themselves in power for 59 consecutive years despite (for example) food shortages limiting (according to the North Korean government’s official “allocation”) each person to between 700 and 1,400 calories per day. (Daily caloric intake in the US is 3,770, in Congo 1,590, in China 3,000.)

To this day North Korea lacks sufficient electricity to dispel the dark: In nighttime satellite photos, it is a patch of jet black between China and South Korea.

By any standard measure, the Kims’ is a failed leadership. It is likely that someday, if not this day, Kim Jong-un will be forced to run away.

Yet North Korea’s royal family does play good chess. Up to this very moment, the Kim dynasty remains in power. The main reason has been the Hamlet-style indecision of American leadership. But now Kim has good reason to believe that this (to be excessively generous in the label) patience on the part of the West is over. Fire and Fury are in the offing.

Kim One, Two and Three defied patience by force of will – a will to defy the rest of a world; a world they pretend (for the benefit of the more gullible of their oppressed and poverty-stricken “citizens”) is out to get them, and only they are the nation’s shield and spear.

If patience were to continue, Kim would have hung on, built his military/atomic power, starved his people, and defied all antagonists no matter what words he uttered, no matter what “sanctions” were imposed, no matter what promises his vacillating opponents were to offer. And so, all previous attempts to moderate North Korean policy have failed.

If it turns out that Kim is hiding, it is because he believes the Americans have run out of patience, and, as we stated above, he is frozen, unable to climb down, and fearful of pulling the trigger. Result? Time to go.

Royal Kim, who operated as an absolute monarch, must have it all, or have nothing at all. He ruled as a demigod. If he “bleeds”, if he shows any sign of weakness, if he takes one step back, his reputation as the indomitable savior is lost, and his rule collapses.

But his all-or-nothing nature is his Achilles’ heel. Take advantage of his indecision, and North Korea comes out of the dark. If the coalition of East and West suggested by us takes up the challenge, and Kim is frozen, uncertain and fearful, “horrific” destruction can be avoided and an Asian cancer will be excised.

Tom Velk and Jade Xiao

Tom Velk is a libertarian-leaning American economist who teaches and lives in Montreal, Canada. He is the chairman of the North American studies program at McGill University and a professor in that university's economics department. Jade Xiao is a McGill University graduate.

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