North Korea’s leader has a strategy that he’s stubbornly pursuing. Meanwhile, the White House is sending him uncoordinated threats. This only serves to worsen a bad situation, argues guest contributor Peter Sturm.
For all that has been written about Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, rarely has he been described as having good sense. But in the current situation, which could very well turn into a major crisis, it can be fairly said: Kim is not irrational in his actions. In fact, he has a clear strategy, one that he’s pursuing doggedly, just as his father and his grandfather did. In contrast to his forefathers, however, Kim obviously hears the ticking of the clock. This is clearly connected to the change of administrations in Washington.
The Donald Trump administration has declared an end to former President Barack Obama’s strategy of using “strategic patience” in dealing with Pyongyang. For Kim, the contradictory signals sent from the White House since January are seen as part of a carefully constructed plan by Trump, one in which every public statement is carefully worded to the very last detail.
In actual fact they are really the result of confusion within the administration. This in itself poses a danger, as both sides are more likely to perceive their opponent’s actions as threatening.
Practiced propaganda vs. military might
For this reason, Kim sees a “window of vulnerability” in his opponent. The most important reason why is that the only way he can hit back effectively at the US is through the use of propaganda. North Korea still pales in comparison to the US militarily – two nuclear tests and countless missile launches haven’t changed that. Kim wants to bring his nuclear program to a close as soon as possible in order to prevent the country from a potential attack.
An entirely different question is whether Washington opening a dialogue with Pyongyang – as suggested by China, for instance – would do much to quell the tension. If there has been any sacred rule in Kim Jong-un’s life, it is to not put trust in anyone, least of all foreigners, nor on a piece of paper. For this reason a nuclear agreement with North Korea is theoretically likely, but it would also be impossible to trust that Kim would stick to the rules. The leader’s rationality doesn’t go that far.
Peter Sturm is an editor at the German daily newspaper “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung” (FAZ).