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The rationality of Kim Jong Un



The ongoing talk of war with North Korea and the threat of nuclear weapons has everybody dusting off their copies of Dr Strangelove and rewatching that classic black farce of innuendo, misunderstanding and paranoia in an age of Mutually Assured Destruction.

xxxxxIronically, for all the rhetoric about Kim Jong Un as crazed tin pot dictator with his finger on the button, he may just have got this one right. He is undoubtedly a cruel dictator presiding over a deprived wasteland but, for all his bluster and viciousness, it would be a mistake to regard him as an irrational actor. It is entirely reasonable for him to detect a pattern in recent US diplomacy and military activity.

 Saddam gave away his chemical weapons under UN supervision in the aftermath of his expulsion from Kuwait - and the US invaded again to finish the job and hang him in front of a jeering mob of his political enemies.

Libya halted its nuke programme - and the US, France and UK invaded, resulting in Muammar being sodomised with a bayonet while futilely pleading for his life on the streets of Sirte. Syria gave up its chemical weapons - and is knee deep in foreign invaders, including the US whose “moderate rebels”, including Al Qaeda offshoot Hayat Tahrir Al Sham would have burned the country from end to end were it not for Russia’s reluctance to lose its sole Mediterranean ally.

Then, too, there is Iran – where euphoria at the conclusion of an historic nuclear agreement has now turned to talk of US repudiation of that agreement and a growing drum beat for war. One might certainly argue that there were complex factors at play in each case and some might even say, as the US often has (remember Ms Clinton’s famous “we came, we saw, he died” quote on Qaddafi) that many, if not most, of these worthies had it coming to them.

Nevertheless, viewing things from the point of view of a stated enemy of the US being asked to disarm, you have to admit that the precedents (regardless of which major party holds power in the US) do not point to a happy retirement on the Costa del Sol for those who comply with the indispensable world power’s demands.

 On this basis, I suspect that Kim believes, not unreasonably, that the current threats from the US of “fire and fury” and an army “locked and loaded” are designed to make him climb down and follow the well-established pattern set out above, presumably under the guise of a UN brokered compromise.

He has even less reason to believe in the US’ good faith than most: the Americans conspicuously failed to live up to previous nuclear agreements with the North (namely to construct light water reactors and deliver on sanctions relief. While Congress was to blame for some of this, Clinton administration officials openly admitted that they never intended to build the reactors because they assumed the North Korean government would have collapsed by the time the obligations fell due).


"He has even less reason to believe in the US’ good faith than most: the Americans conspicuously failed to live up to previous nuclear agreements with the North."


The US knows as well as the North does that any war directly threatens Seoul and Japan - and perhaps (but less likely) the US as well. Most of Seoul, a vast city containing some of the world’s high tech leaders, is in easy range of the North’s artillery and nuclear weapons. Japan, another high tech leader and home to many US troops, is also well within North Korean missile range.

A war would kill thousands of US troops and halt technology production, and thereby probably bring much of the world’s economic system grinding to a halt.

For as long as this is the case, I suspect that Kim Jong Un is right to calculate that he will not be attacked. While the countless civilians who would die may not matter to what Bob Dylan so long ago called “the masters of war”, the bottom line and, to some extent, troops coming home in coffins, do.

The massive – and immediate term – blow back of destroying a small country with very little reward (there is no oil in the North) means that the game is not worth the candle. There may, however, be a lot of bluster (which will serve to hide other atrocities and bad news – and push up the stocks of arms manufacturers).

There is, of course, always a risk that someone will do something stupid (particularly since the US seems to be ginning up talk with a war with Iran as well). As ever, deterrence is a high stakes game of chicken with everyone the loser in the long term as resources which could have gone into feeding, healing and clothing people and mending the planet are channelled into mistrust and weapons for better and better killing.

The chance that someone will, as in Dr Strangelove, miscalculate and kill millions, is very real. Nevertheless, in the short term, it may well be that Kim’s cold calculus is the one thing which actually prevents a resumption of the Korean War.


Justin GlynFr Justin Glyn SJ is studying canon law in Canada. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, Donald Trump, US, nuclear war, Russia, Putin



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Existing comments

You'd think the Chinese Communist Party could show Kim Jong-un how to do what it did: evolve from communist dictatorship to fascist dictatorship, keep the same politics, change the economy and make a whole lot of North Koreans happier, without giving up a single nuclear warhead. Given that he's siding with Putin against his own Congress and apparently pals with Duterte, why can't the friend of strongmen Donald J Trixon do some ping pong diplomacy with Pyongyang by state visiting yet another dictator? Everybody knows Kim is only in this missile business as an art of the deal. The only people who would oppose this détente would be ... the CCP.

Roy Chen Yee | 14 August 2017  

An excellent, and compassionate, analysis. I cannot fault any of this logic. Thank you, Justin Glyn.

Tony Kevin | 15 August 2017  

An excellent analysis, and frightening. Iraq and Libya are certainly worth remembering. Why did Russia and China back the UN resolution? Their way of being able to say afterwards that they cannot be blamed and it was all the fault of the fool the Americans elected as potus.

Frank | 15 August 2017  

A refreshingly different article Justin. May I be so bold as to suggest that your talents are wasted doing Canon Law

Lawrence Moloney | 15 August 2017  

Justin, well written, well reasoned, and depressing. Depressing not because it points to a worse outcome than other commentators are predicting. It is possibly more hopeful. It is depressing because it is one more bullet in our self-deception that we are on the side of the good guys. Surely it is time we stopped blindly following the US into these arrogantly offensive situations.

Vin Victory | 15 August 2017  

I support those who have responded before me in a general sense. However, In and Trump are not the only twits on Earth One only needs to look south in Asia, Western Europe, parts of South (and North?) America as well at times in Australia for incredible political misses.

John Morkham | 15 August 2017  

Australians need to grow up. For the last thirty years the most actively debated issue amongst friends and family is the size of the mortgage and the cost of home renovation. Most seasoned contributors advocate a line of appeasement similar to the gist of this article. But what of a strike from the north. Justin you assume Kim is rational and makes rational decisions. What is the outcome if you are wrong ? Why and how has he obtained access to the new Ukrainian built propulsion systems that powered the last launch. Are people aware these are the mind blowing propulsion systems the Russians designed to catapult ten nuclear bombs from a single rocket ? Victory suggests we do not blindly follow the Americans into another self deception. Perhaps he is suggesting we should change alliances to China. The problem for all Eureka contributors and readers is that our freely expressed views would require "re-education" by way of imprisonment torture or murder under the Chinese regime.. We have see recently that even a nobel peace prize recipient is not immune from the requirement to be re-educated.... Then consider whose interest North Korea really serves ? A nuclear capable nation that's can deliver bombs around the world with an unstable leader. The answer is of course China. They have brought a vicious nasty dog into our neighborhood. They trained the dog and they continue to feed it. No one dares confront the dog or the owner. The dog is dangerous but the owner is much much worse. America, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, Western Europe. These are the civilized societies that share our deepest held beliefs and ideals. These are our partners in an unstable world.

Patrick | 16 August 2017  

Thank you Justin for a guided tour through a parallel universe. It all reminded me of what Peter sellers taught about such things when he was in the US War Room in Dr. Strangelove: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vuP6KbIsNK4

Michael Kelly | 16 August 2017  

Patrick is right in saying that “America, Canada, Britain, New Zealand, Western Europe. These are the civilized societies that share our deepest held beliefs and ideals”. A similar argument is often invoked in favour of Israel, that it is the only democracy in the Middle East. But none of this should blind us to when their conduct is not appropriate and indeed ought to be condemned.

Fred | 16 August 2017  

An update from Bhutan where the Chinese have dug in to dispute a 32 square mile area they claim.... the language from the Chinese military is priceless, think about the word "development"..... "No country should underestimate the confidence and ability of the Chinese military to fulfill its duty of defending peace,” Colonel Ren said. “Nor should it underestimate the determination and will of the Chinese military to safeguard national sovereignty, security and development interests.” Wake up Australia. The Chinese are pressing strategic military interests across the globe. How long could we hold without our allies ? What would we do if the allies could not maintain supply lines ? ..

Patrick | 17 August 2017  

What an excellent article. Thank you Justin Glyn

Betsy Conti | 17 August 2017  

This is such a good article! Thank you, Justin. Coming back to re-read it weeks after its publication, I see your intelligent and original analysis as more important by the day.

Frances Letters | 05 September 2017  

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