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Kim will not disarm. Day by day he is increasing preparedness for a war that he will fight without mercy. 


What takes place when an “irresistible” force, aka Donald Trump, meets an “immovable” Kim Jong Un will become clear latest by mid-2019. Either the United States will give a pass to the military option and continue with its policy of threats and UN-approved sanctions till then, or there will be war, waged by the US, Japan and, possibly, South Korea, to take out the nuclear and missile assets of North Korea before these become too deadly for countermeasures.


Interestingly, the Korean peninsula is legally still in a state of war, with only an armistice, rather than a peace treaty being agreed upon in 1953 between North and South Korea and their respective patrons. Since then, there have been regular eruptions of tension between the two sides, with the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) cutting across the 38th parallel witnessing testy exchanges between the rival militaries. Although President George W. Bush put North Korea alongside Iraq in his “Axis of Evil” speech, the 43rd US President showed extreme timidity in dealing with the challenge to US, Japanese and South Korean security posed by the steady accretion of the nuclear and missile strength of the Kim family fiefdom. This same Clinton-era action-reaction cycle has been played out repeatedly since the early 1990s, in which North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, DPRK) would test missiles and continue with its nuclear weapons research and development, followed by harsh words, but mild (in comparison to those imposed on Saddam-ruled Iraq) sanctions by a clutch of countries led by the US and Japan. The Obama administration did not make any serious effort to give an impression that it was prepared for conflict, with the consequence that the coming to power in North Korea of the youthful and steel-nerved Kim Jong Un in 2010 as the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (followed a year later by being appointed Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces) saw a steep acceleration in the pace of both the nuclear as well as the missile programs.


Their experience with US Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama has convinced the DPRK “leadership centre” that Washington is bluffing when it warns Pyongyang of a possible conflict designed to take out the Kim regime. The only sceptic of such scepticism was Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jong Sang Thaek, who warned against dismissing the US threat of war as empty, and counselled a slowdown in the WMD program so that international sanctions could be eased and funds diverted to civilian needs. Such advocacy was counter to Kim Jong Un’s growing conviction, that any US administration would be relentless in its enmity to him and his control over North Korea, and hence that any US talk of compromise was only a smokescreen designed to lull the regime into a false sense of security. Such negotiations would ensure that Pyongyang relax its vigilance, and first dilute and then give up its WMD stockpiles, thereby making inevitable the kinetic US-plus intervention designed to take out Kim Jong Un, the way Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi were in the past. Videos of the final moments of both have been viewed several times over by Kim Jong Un, and helped make up his mind, by the start of 2013, never to compromise with the US over the DPRK’s missile and nuclear weapons program. Soon after that determination, his still doubting uncle was put to death as a warning to other conciliators, who immediately fell silent, in some cases due to death by firing squad.


Kim is ‘Least’ Ideological


Kim Jong Un is the least ideological of the triumvirate of grandfather, father and himself, who have run North Korea since the Japanese were ushered out of the peninsula by the US in 1945. Since the close of 2012, and especially after mid-2015, the Supreme Leader of the DPRK has presided over a liberalisation of the North Korean economy that puts in the shade all previous efforts at ensuring a less classically communist economic structure. Such moves were half-hearted under his father Kim Jong Il, who did not believe in economic liberalisation, and ensured that the entire economy remained under the grip of the family since taking charge of the country in 1994. The consequence was that relative economic development between the two sides showed a worsening trend for the North, which by the formal close of Kim Jong Il’s regime in 2011 had become an economic pygmy compared to South Korea, now among the most prosperous countries on the planet. Although a decade (1998-2008) of what may be termed an “evening sunshine” policy was carried out by South Korea to placate and cajole the North, these relatively limited opportunities were mostly not taken advantage of by the doctrinaire Kim Jong Il, whose mind remained anchored to the Stalinist precepts he had acquired from the Soviet Union. His son Kim Jong Un was different. Had it not been for the additional sanctions placed on the DPRK since 2013, the North Korean economy would by now have begun to narrow the gap with its southern neighbour. A genuine “sunshine policy” would have worked with the grandson of DPRK founder, Kim Il Sung, in a way not possible under Kim Jong Il. However, after 2013, Kim Jong Un was emphatic that such a policy would have to accept the DPRK as a full-fledged nuclear and missile power, as events in the Middle East and in North Africa during 2011-2013 began in him a deep distrust for any promises made by the US. From that time onwards, the Supreme Leader of North Korea was inflexible in his resolve to ensure that his scientists and technicians mastered nuclear and missile technology sufficient to land a punishing blow to the US mainland, in case of an attack by the world’s most powerful country on the DPRK.


‘Pure North Must be the Master’


In an inversion of global perceptions, DPRK Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un regards the Republic of Korea (RoC) as a “slave” country, controlled by the US-Japan alliance, despite being allowed to curse its masters in public to “pretend” to its people that it was independent. Despite its lowly economic performance, the Kim cohorts consider themselves to be the “purer” representatives of the Korean race, and hence better fitted to run the entire peninsula, than the elected government in Seoul. Once the DPRK perfects its nuclear weapons and intercontinental delivery systems, the intention is to prod the South Korean authorities to open unification talks “solely between the two parts of Korea” that would establish a government where there would be a “permanent and honoured presence” for Kim Jong Un and his key military and security chiefs. None of this is acceptable to either the US or to South Korea, which would like to see the dissolution of the DPRK regime and its absorption into the RoC on the lines of the unification of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) and the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1992. That took place through the surrender by Mikhail Gorbachev of Moscow’s interests in the GDR, a humiliating move that was soon followed by the extinguishing of Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) control over what till that time had been the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).


Kim Jong Un has no intention of allowing his regime to dissolve, or to give up his interest in developing a nuclear and missile deterrent that would be effective against the US and Japan, the two countries he regards as the “enemies of the Korean race”. Interestingly, the leadership centre in North Korea believes that “the Japanese tail wags the American dog”, and that it is Tokyo that is setting the pace for Washington’s hostility towards Pyongyang. Until the second term began of George W. Bush, it would have been possible to de-nuclearise North Korea with minimal damage to either South Korea or Japan, but by the final two years of the second four-year term of the Obama administration, North Korean capacities had (in the estimation of Pyongyang) reached a level where tens of thousands of deaths and many times that number sick and injured would take place in Japan and South Korea, were the US to attack the DPRK. By now, those figures for potential casualties are in the North Korean view be substantial underestimates, and will include US citizens in Japan, South Korea, Guam and the Philippines.


[This opinion piece forms a part of the themed article series “North Korea as a Global Existential Threat” of the Science, Technology & Security forum.


The article was originally published in the Sunday Guardian and is reproduced with permission.]


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are personal.