Kim Jong-il, former leader of North Korea and, since his death in 2011, Eternal General Secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea, was generally considered a wily, if oppressive, old fox. When, inevitably, North Korea’s communist economics periodically led to famine, Kim II would rattle his sabre just enough to prod the West to buy him off with a little aid. As weird as he might have looked and as twisted as the society he ruled may have been, Kim II could be seen in this light as a rational actor on the diplomatic stage.
As his successor, his equally funny-looking son Kim Jong-un, engages in a prolonged and particularly bellicose bout of belligerence, the first question is whether that assessment also applies to him. Is Kim III a cynic or a lunatic?
It’s a question we can ask about North Korea more generally. When Kim II died in December 2011 many in the West giggled at the bizarre scenes of hysterical grief among the citizenry captured on camera and beamed around the world. Surely, we thought as we saw North Koreans bashing themselves over their heads and howling, they were doing it for the benefit of the gun-toting guards just out of shot. Maybe they were. But there’s a scarier possibility: they actually meant it.
North Korea, not Sweden, is the ultimate welfare state; no government promises to be so all-encompassing in providing for its people. Beyond its borders, so North Koreans are constantly told from birth, lie Yankee Imperialists and their Japanese and South Korean lackeys who are hell-bent on crushing North Korea and liquidating its people. The state, controlled by the Workers Party of Korea, and headed by Chairman of the Central Military Commission, Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, First Chairman of the National Defence Commission, First Secretary of the Worker’s Party of Korea, and Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un (ably assisted by his dead father and grandfather who is Eternal President of the Republic), is all the protects them from annihilation.
North Koreans also depend on the beneficence of the State, Party, and Supreme Leader for their daily bread. From the moment they are born they are taught that they are clothed, fed, and housed at the “grace of the Chairman”. The state is the only guarantor of the welfare of North Koreans, from cradle to mass grave.
So to the average North Korean the death of Kim II probably did represent a calamity of existential proportions. These are people who have been reduced to a state of total, helpless, physical and psychological dependence on the unholy trinity of State, Party, and Leader which, like the Holy trinity, are actually all the same thing. North Koreans were suddenly faced with what they had been told was impossible, life without the Supreme Leader, and, like dependents everywhere, they collapsed mentally.
Whether Kim III is cynic or lunatic, the key to dealing with him lies with China. Without Chinese military intervention in the Korean War in 1950 North Korea would have been strangled at birth. Mao Tse Tung called the relationship between the two countries “as close as lips and teeth” and it is widely thought that what passes for North Korea’s economy is entirely dependent on Chinese aid.
If this is so, China can flick the switch on Pyongyang’s life support whenever it likes. And, if that is so, you have to wonder why they don’t, why they continue to tolerate North Korea’s behaviour.
A North Korea which is pliant to Beijing but plausibly dangerous to everyone else could actually work quite well for the Chinese. If the United States ever feels compelled to resolve the North Korean issue with a degree of finality it will need Chinese assistance or, at the very least, approval. The more dangerous North Korea is deemed to be the more Beijing can ask in return for giving it up. Is it a coincidence that North Korea is kicking off just as tension mounts between China and Japan?
This, however, all hinges on the answer to the second question: how much control does the regime in Beijing have over the regime in Pyongyang? It’s possible the answer is none or less than we think and that North Korea truly is a rogue state. Then we return to the first question: is its leader cynic or lunatic?
Either way the road to Pyongyang runs through Beijing. The third question is what will be the toll?
This article originally appeared at The Commentator