As Kim Jong-un breathes fire and possibly prepares to test another long-range missile, the North Korean leader’s main advantage is that no one knows who he is or what he is capable of instigating.
We know he went to a Swiss boarding school under an assumed name, and likes good food and basketball. That’s about it. That vague portrait contrasts sharply with what we know about, say, US Secretary of State John Kerry and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, who are discussing the North Korean crisis today in Seoul, and whose lives are a matter of public record, down to the names of their household pets.
But in recent days, North Korea watchers have begun to say that Kim Jong-un is showing he is definitely in charge of North Korea, that his leadership is bold and forceful, and that he is using his bellicosity in challenging the mighty United States to make himself a legendary figure for North Koreans, every bit as powerful and heroic as his father and grandfather, whose colossal statues and giant photos are found in every nook and cranny of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
“This is the first crisis between Kim Jong-un and the world,” says Alexandre Mansourov, a longtime Korea-watcher for the US government who studied in Pyongyang and is now with Johns Hopkins University. “This confrontation is not material, not about military capability. It is about his [Kim’s] reputation. He is carving out his personal stamp. He will no longer live in the shadow of dad and granddad. He is now the man. And he is succeeding.”
The best-case scenario in the weird world standoff is that young Kim will fully and fearfully seal his status as the unequivocal god-king of the North. Having proved himself a shining deity without compare – the usher of accolades to the Kim family dynasty – he could then become the man who finally ended the Korean War, something his forebears could not do. He could also sign an ironclad treaty with the United States to guarantee no forced “regime change,” and guarantee that no Iraq-style military adventure ever takes place in the North.
The worst-case scenario is a slip into miscalculation, escalation, war, paranoia, and a Kim-induced individual and collective suicide.
David Ignatius of the Washington Post today ends a cautionary piece with a rhetorical question: "Is it really possible that Kim and the North Korean military could lead their country toward what would amount to national suicide? Analysts often reject this as an irrational and improbably outcome. But consider this: There was a northeast Asian nation led by a ruler with quasi-divine status, who in league with his military led his country into a reckless and self-destructive war.....That nation was imperial Japan."
Missile tests, nuclear tests, and ousting generals
Kim has also proved the ability to get his way inside Pyongyang. He has removed senior generals, including four officials that carried the casket of his father, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il, in an emotional state funeral last year.
Whereas Kim Jong-il had 12 years to tool around Pyongyang, run a propaganda department, and get trained for succession by his own father, Kim Il-sung, the paramount leader of the nation, Kim Jong-un had only 11 months, notes Joseph DeTrani, former North Korean mission manager, ambassador, and special envoy to the nearly defunct “six-party” talks that involved Pyongyang, Moscow, Beijing, Seoul, Tokyo, and Washington.
“Kim Jong-un is more gregarious than his father, reminiscent of Kim Il-sung,” Mr. DeTrani said in a panel discussion this week at the Wilson Center in Washington. While Kim Jong-il's voice was heard only once by ordinary North Koreans, the younger Kim has spoken volubly to the nation. Kim Jong-il was reclusive, aloof, and rarely seen; the son, whose broad face and haircut strikingly resemble his grandfather, is shown again and again in military regalia, commanding the generals, depicting action and vigor.
“He proving he is the leader, the decider … a leader in power, a leader from the get-go … very bold,” says DeTrani.
What Kim seems to want, he says, is to scare the rest of the world so much that “we all relent” and accept that North Korea is a nuclear power. “North Korea, in my view, thinks we will blink … if they threaten and intimidate enough, they will win.”
The problem today, as DeTrani and many other East Asian observers note, is that unlike previous periods under Kim Jong-il, and under the “Sunshine Policy” a decade ago that brought a period of rapprochement between the Koreas, “no one is prepared to cave in or be threatened.”
As Secretary Kerry said on the first of his four days in South Korea: "The rhetoric that we are hearing from North Korea is simply unacceptable by any standard," adding that the US "will, if needed, defend our allies and defend ourselves."
That sense of digging in sets the region up for the “danger of stumbling into something that will escalate and be catastrophic,” says DeTrani.