Kim Jong Un is a survivor, not a madman

Andrei Lankov writes: Everyone loves thinking of North Korea as crazy. It threatens to consume the United States in nuclear fire on a semi-weekly basis, its leader brutally executes his own generals and had his brother murdered, and it wastes huge amount of money on nuclear weapons while sticking to a failed economic model. Tales of North Korean lunacy are never far from the front pages.

The problem is it’s not just the media that delights in depicting Pyongyang and Kim Jong Un, as irrational — U.S. policymakers indulge in the same behavior. In April, U.S. Congressman Bradley Burne (R-Ala.) said “I don’t believe the leadership in North Korea is rational. How do you deal with someone that is irrational?” He echoed prior remarks by U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley who said, “We are not dealing with a rational person,” since, she claimed, Kim is a person “who has not had rational acts, who is not thinking clearly.”

As a guide for understanding North Korea, this analysis is just plain wrong. As a guide for crafting policy toward Pyongyang, it may be catastrophic. North Korea’s system might look bizarre to us from the outside, but the Kims are the ultimate political survivors, hard-edged rationalists whose actions have always had a clear purpose: keeping the family in power. Seeing them as madmen is not only wrong, but also dangerous; any successful policy should be based on understanding the logic of the opposite side, not on discarding it as “irrational” Seeing the Kim family as lunatics with nukes makes them more threatening, and raises the risk of war, but it can also promote unrealistic expectations of compromise — if only the North “comes to its senses.”

Back in the 1980s the Kim family was laughed at even inside the Eastern Bloc as an embodiment of Stalinist irrationality. They were mocked for clinging to their outdated personality cult and failed economics and it was suggested that they should follow the dynamic leaders of Eastern Europe, like the reformist communist leader Karoly Grosz of Hungary. Today, these leaders are in the waste bin of history — overthrown, disgraced, and forgotten — while the Kim family still enjoys not only power, but the luxury that goes with it and remains in full control of their country. [Continue reading…]

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