China Power

Understanding Kim Jong-il

Recent Features

China Power

Understanding Kim Jong-il

Understanding what motivates Kim Jong-il, and why North Korea shelled a South Korean island, is no easy task.

One of my readers made an interesting point in response to my blog entry yesterday on North Korea’s shelling this week of a South Korean island.

He argues that I was wrong to refer to Kim Jong-il as irrational, noting that his tactics are actually completely rational in that they involve creating one crisis after another that is eventually defused with concessions from other nations.

It’s a good point, and one I’ve alluded to before when I talked about the prospects for another round of ‘Make a Deal, Break a Deal’ in which North Korea pockets the goodies but then fails to live up to its end of the bargain.

In cases like this, I suppose it depends how we choose to define ‘rational’. From the point of view of a leadership concerned about the well-being of its own people—even if only to the extent that it ensures lasting internal stability to underpin its own long-term survival—then time and time again the Kim regime has clearly acted irrationally. But if the goal is simply short or even medium term survival with a complete disregard for anything except gratification of the ruling elites’ own desires, then Kim has proven a master tactician in clinging on.

As the commenter noted, it’s all tied into the so-called ‘Crazy Fearsome Cripple Gambit’ that was outlined by Stratfor’s George Friedman way back in 1999. Friedman argued that the first part of the strategy involved North Korea portraying itself as a cripple, a line it pursued from around 1994 by emphasizing the massive food shortages the country was facing.

The next stage, once the country had ‘established itself as a cripple, unworthy of outside manipulation’ was to make itself fearsome. It did so by doing its utmost to make the United States and its allies fully aware that it was developing nuclear weapons and delivery systems, carrying out espionage missions and blocking inspector access to nuclear facilities.

For the third and final stage, Friedman noted: ‘Having established that they were crippled and fearsome, the critical element was to establish their insanity…Since the regime was in imminent danger of falling, since the government would do anything to stay in power, and since the government had all sorts of military options available to them, it followed that the threat of collapse might trigger some crazed military adventure. Because no one wanted that, it followed that, not only would no one try to collapse the North Korean regime, but they would take steps to stabilize it’.

Separately, I was contacted by an academic at Tokyo’s Takushoku University, who shared with me the analysis of his colleague, Koh Young-Choul, who is a former military intelligence officer in the South Korean Defence Ministry and now a visiting research fellow at the university. He outlined three possible motivations for the shelling this week, all of which confirm points touched on by Gordon Flake, who I spoke with earlier this week.

The first possibility Koh suggests is that the strike was aimed at enhancing the expected new leadership of Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-un—essentially the military was burnishing its credentials. This, Koh argues, could be tied to a general tendency for the military to be overzealous in its efforts to show its loyalty. He cites the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987 and the 1983 bomb attack on a South Korean delegation visiting Burma as examples of likely military-led terrorism.

A second possibility Koh notes is that North Korea might see the attack as part of an ongoing game that began with the sinking of the Cheonan, and that it could be a response to the US-South Korean reaction of engaging in joint military exercises. The third point Koh makes, as Flake did when I spoke with him, is that the attack could well be aimed at diverting US pressure over revelations that North Korea’s uranium enrichment programme is further advanced than many analysts had anticipated.

These all sound like reasonable points, and the truth may well be a combination of some or all of them. But it’s important not to get carried away with the speculation and to keep the issue in context.

Yesterday, I met up with US foreign policy commentator and blogger Steve Clemons and East Asian security analyst Andrew Oros, and unsurprisingly the North Korean incident came up. Oros indicated that he felt some frustration with the way incidents like these are covered by the media, and he made the point, for example, that this month’s US-South Korea joint military exercises that I mentioned yesterday, which China has quickly condemned, were in fact planned some time ago.

It’s an important lesson for analysts and policymakers trying to work out what exactly is going on and how to respond to unfolding events. Finding patterns from which to learn and to help guide policy is essential, but doing so always requires some caution lest we see patterns and motivations that aren’t really there.