North Korea’s latest threat of nuclear war is another salvo of incendiary rhetoric from the rogue nation, but it’s also part of a calculated power move by leader Kim Jong Un.
Experts say Kim’s fiery talk and defiance of the international community masks a core fact: His pursuit of a nuclear program is designed to establish the legitimacy of his regime inside North Korea and to gain international stature.
CIA Director Mike Pompeo said last week that the consensus in the intelligence community is that Kim is “rational” — even though some comments from North Korea may not seem so.
The joint military exercises being conducted by the United States and South Korea involving hundreds of warplanes “are creating a touch-and-go situation on the Korean Peninsula,” North Korea’s foreign ministry said late Wednesday. “The remaining question now is: When will the war break out.”
Kim has had a lengthy exchange of personal insults with President Trump, and North Korea’s many missile launches prompted Trump to call Kim “rocket man.”
“Kim certainly is acting rationally and predictably if his objective is to secure his hold on power,” said Sheila Miyoshi Jager, a professor at Oberlin College and author of Brothers at War: The Unending Conflict in Korea.
North Korea’s test last month established that the isolated nation had built a missile capable of reaching Washington, D.C., and other East Coast cities. Both its missile and warhead technology are advancing rapidly, as Pyongyang shows no sign of backing off its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
Kim believes nuclear weapons serve as a deterrent and provide economic leverage for North Korea, Jager said. Kim fears he will go the way of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi — both gave up their nuclear weapons programs and were overthrown.
If North Korea does eventually come to the negotiating table, it would rather be as an established nuclear power so it could make economic demands in return for curtailing its program or signing non-aggression treaties.
In 1994, for example, the United States agreed to provide North Korea with so-called light water reactors and provided other economic incentives in return for abandoning its nuclear program. The deal eventually fell apart, but North Korea would still be interested in similar economic incentives today.
Kim also believes that the threat of a nuclear attack on the United States might force Washington to rethink its commitment to defend South Korea if attacked. North Korea’s ultimate goal is to reunify the peninsula.
“Would the U.S. trade destruction of L.A., Seattle or Chicago (in order) to defend Seoul?” Jager asked. “Perhaps, but from Kim’s perspective, it’s definitely worth pursuing, because it is the only realistic way to achieve the ‘final victory.’”
Even Kim’s brutality against his own people is calculated. He was relatively unknown and untested when he came to power in 2011 and not yet 30 years old. He is the third generation of his family to rule the country.
“Many people thought he was too young and inexperienced to rule,” Jager said. “He came into power with something to prove.”
He turned to violence to quickly prove himself. Kim ordered his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, executed about a year after coming into power, according to the South Korean intelligence service.
He is also suspected of ordering the killing of his exiled half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, a potential rival who was poisoned with a toxic nerve agent in Malaysia in February.
“In the long history of purges instigated by both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, none ever involved the killing of close family members,” Jager said.
“He’s vengeful, ruthless, and he knows how to wield power through terror,” she said. “But it also shows that Kim plays by his own rules.”