North Korea has become the latest country to be threatened by an assumption. Following its declaration that it will bomb the waters near Guam with missiles which will be “ready within days”, the US has responded by saying that “going to war with America is suicide” Where have we head this threat before?
If you ask most people anywhere if they would rather live in America or North Korea, you know what the clear answer will be. We also want to believe that the things we want are stronger than the things we don’t. We know that the US is the one remaining major superpower, at least in its ability to bring about destruction of the world as we know it. Moreover, it has a vast network of allies around the globe, some very well resourced. Thus, we all assume, because we want to, that if you take on the US you will lose hands down.
Wag the Dog
Perhaps you could tell that to Bashar al-Assad. Or to those who remember Ho Chi Minh, or the Ayatollah Khomeini. The US is threatening strikes against North Korea precisely because it wants to avoid getting involved in long drawn out wars, as it has in Syria and many other places. It wants to avoid such wars because it can’t win them. If this keeps happening, people will start to think that the US isn’t the power it thinks it is, and start looking around for other friends, even those whose values they don’t like.
North Korea, on the other hand, has nothing to lose. It is often remarked that Kim Jong-un has allegdly assassinated or jailed most of the people who surrounded him when he first became leader. If it’s true, one can describe it as an act of necessity: people who have been in government for a time always think they know more about it than newcomers, and in a non-democratic state the only resource either side must get their way by direct action.
North Korea has survived against all reality for a very long time. Now the US is becoming increasingly like North Korea, it understands the threat it poses. Once the DPRK had ideological friends who could bankroll it, but now the world has moved on. Sooner or later it will be targeted simply because it is an anomaly, even if it gives up its weapons.
North Korea exists as the reflection of the Kim dynasty. It is incapable of being pluralist even if it wants to, as the entire state mechanism relies on unchanging central control and unchanging policy. If the dynasty goes, the country collapses. What would you do in his place: sit back and watch your demise justDoing one on latest NK developments. happen, being remembered as a wimpish charlatan, or go out in a blaze of glory, your country destroyed by the enemy, your people determined to unite behind your memory, and the good you have done, to right this wrong?
Taking on a superpower and losing will guarantee the Kim family the mythological status they have long sought and projected to their population. Taking on a superpower and winning, even in part, will ensure their ongoing control of the country and regain them public and institutional trust. So who is committing suicide by entering into this conflict: North Korea or the United States?
Losers and losers
If Kim Jong-un was likely to listen to US threats we would not have got to this point. To maintain Kim family control, he has to believe in the eventual triumph of his system and his power to defeat all enemies. He has to genuinely believe that he can destroy America with ICBMs, and be prepared to show the world that this is so.
The North Korean people have to believe in their country too. Unlike Kim, they can’t change anything if it isn’t working. It was widely believed in the West that Soviet Communism would never fall because the system was so tightly controlled, just like North Korea. Those who were part of that system knew in their hearts that it was not working, and not desirable, but could do nothing about it until the leaders themselves recognised the fact. They had to believe in their country to go about their everyday lives, and no matter how much power he nominally has, Kim has to keep things the same way.
The threat to strike Guam suggests that North Korea doesn’t yet have weapons which can reach Alaska, as previously claimed. But can anyone really be sure? His tests are a fact of life, and so are a number of weapons identified by monitoring devices.
If Kim possesses such weapons he is not going to give the enemy all the details, or allow their locations to be revealed. If North Korea can and does strike Guam, destroying US military facilities in the process, he will send a country down a road his people have to trust will lead them to victory. Even if the US strikes back, the images of burning planes and fleeing soldiers will convince any doubters that North Korea means what it says and is telling the truth – and at this point, this is the most powerful message it could send.
North Koreans are used to trusting in their leaders, and are obliged to idolise them, whatever their private feelings. But do Americans trust in, or idolise, Donald Trump? Do they believe what he says, or take much notice of it? In an actual conflict, who will suffer the most from any comparison: the evil dictator who is showing he can do what he said, or the man who has built his life on con and bluster?
Cometh the hour, goeth the reason
Donald Trump is Commander-in-chief of the US Armed Forces. He also has a military structure under him containing many experienced commanders, who know as much as anyone about waging war. These commanders are also major players in the all-embracing military-industrial complex which actually runs the US, whichever administration happens to be in the White House at a given time.
If the US is involved in any conflict, its president has two choices: he can allow the people who know about war to fight it, or he can sack the commanders and run everything with his own appointees. The US is involved in many dirty activities in other countries thanks to its military-industrial complex, and Trump promised during his campaign to scale back of expensive foreign entanglements. So given the choice, he would doubtless reform the military in his own image: what he called “draining the swamp”.
So far this reform has had deleterious results. He has removed the people who gave the orders but replaced them with the people who carried out the orders, and would anyway by personal preference. Far from “draining the swamp” to make things work, he has simply made it deeper, but his. Trump’s policy is not to improve the US military but to make it a new branch of the Trump Corporation, and thus make it into something he knows something about.
Russians will recall that Tsar Nicholas II took personal command of the army during the First World War. He assumed that it would improve the morale of the troops, and thus their performance, if they were fighting directly for their Tsar instead of unpopular commanders. That didn’t work out too well, and neither did it when Hitler did the same, for the same reasons. Trump may not be interested in lessons from history, but they aren’t going to go away when they come to his door.
US military commanders have repeatedly warned against provoking or striking North Korea. So are they the ones behind the latest efforts to hasten nuclear disaster?
All the rhetoric coming from the White House indicates that Trump himself is behind the confrontation with North Korea, and that it is he who wishes to fight fire with fire. Provided it is all talk, he will get away with it. But if missiles actually fly? In the real world, will his appointed personnel be able or willing to carry out his instructions?
No way leads out
World leaders are calling for “calm” and “restraint” while Trump is talking about unleashing “fire and fury”. Maybe this is to give North Korea a way out by showing there are some leaders it can make overtures to.
But will North Korea care? It hasn’t as yet, and isn’t likely to in future, because there is nothing it can gain from doing so.
If North Korea wants to back down now, it will have to reach some sort of agreement with countries which do not agree with its ideology or existence. We have all seen the various regime changes imposed upon friends of the West, let alone its enemies. What are the chances that anyone will help North Korea without demanding changes to the system of government, and to the people in charge?
All Western countries would be glad to see the back of North Korea if it can no longer be used to threaten Russia. But if the US entered into conflict with it, they would be expected to support that conflict with troops and equipment. Trump has said many times that he wants NATO countries to pay a bigger share of the bill for its operations, and an attack on Guam, which is US and therefore NATO territory, would oblige all the other members to join any retaliatory action. Ït is not hard to see why other leaders are pleading for dialogue rather than war with North Korea, even if Kim has no intention of listening.
Trump has shot himself in the foot by alienating NATO allies, even if his basic argument is sound. Kim knows this. It is he, not the mighty West, who has the upper hand in this standoff. He is not going to listen to reason because he doesn’t understand the benefit of doing so, and from his standpoint he is right to believe that there isn’t one.
Even if North Korea is annihilated by the US, this will prove Kim and his family right in everything they have said about it. The state will not survive, but that will be someone else’s problem, and whoever deals with it will be rejected by a significant portion of their new population.
Having been made leader Kim Jong-un can only run North Korea, he can never have any other purpose in life. Martyrdom for what his country represents will guarantee Kim the status his family has always abrogated to itself, and ideas remain long after their worst exponents are no longer there to trouble people.
The joke’s on you
Kim Jong-un was not treated with great respect when he became leader, even in North Korea itself. To many he will always be the funny-looking playboy who got the job because the system is so corrupt. He may inspire fear, but seems incapable of being generating trust or affection, as his father and grandfather did.
But Kim has demonstrated one important talent: spotting a weakness and exploiting it. His various high-profile victims probably thought they were too entrenched to be removed, given the absolute control of the system they were important cogs in. Kim found a way, and has had to continue doing so to stay on top, as every murder or imprisonment creates far more enemies than it removes.
Kim can spot Trump’s type a mile off. This confrontation is smoking him out into the open. Kim is clearly under some pressure at home, and needs to either create some sort of national victory to compensate or get out. A nuclear standoff gives him both options, depending on how it goes. For Trump it merely exposes that however much he postures, his position is weaker than Kim’s, because when words become actions no one will follow him.
Kim Jong-un may not want to take on the might of the US military-industrial complex. But he has been gifted the position of taking on Donald Trump, and fancies his chances. Whatever happens now, there can only be one winner, and it isn’t Donald.
The US present itself as the world’s policeman. So it should be able to prevent nuclear war by using its power and influence. If the world endures nuclear catastrophe Trump will be blamed for not stopping it, not Kim Jong-un for starting it. After all, we all expected North Korea to resort to such things eventually, the US told us it would often enough.
Failure to prevent nuclear war will also mean the destruction of the US’s global reputation, just as failure to prevent World War Two destroyed the League of Nations. If that happens, the US will have committed the suicide the US is warning Kim he himself is committing. Kim Jong-un may not come out of this alive, but his system will have won before it can collapse, and that is ultimately what he, and not Trump, is seeking.
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.