How M.A.D. is Kim Jong Il?

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A June 18 AP story reports that the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea) plans to launch a Taepodong-2 ballistic missile toward Hawaii in early July -- possible on July 4.

The missile has a maximum range of 4,000 miles, and so will land at least 500 miles short of Hawaii. Coming so soon after Kim Jong Il's second-ever nuclear test on May 25, one wonders what the isolated and eccentric Communist dictator is really up to.

Some analysts have said that the nuclear test, in defiance of international pressures, was intended mainly for its effect on domestic DPRK politics. Kim recently annointed his younger son, little-known Kim Jong Un, as his successor, in what pundits describe as a peculiar North Korean-style Communist dynasty. If founding father of the North Korean state, Kim Il Sung, can be labeled Kim I ("Kim the First"), that makes Kim Jong Il become Kim II. His second son, now elevated to crown prince, would then become Kim III when ailing Kim II dies, which might be soon. As one sign of the raising of Kim Jong Un within North Korean politics and society (the two are closely related), he was recently granted a special name, "Brilliant Comrade," similar in tone to his father's "Dear Leader."

In understanding Kim II's real motives behind these dramatic weapon tests, we need to remember that he wants what he wants, not what we think he wants or ought to want. To fail to focus on the infamously enigmatic Kim solely from his own perspective is to commit "mirroring" -- always a mistake in modern geopolitics.

Much of the time, a dictator's top priority is to maintain his/her own power. In the case of an actual or de facto monarch, there is also a powerful drive to keep the throne within the family, for a dynasty that goes on for many generations. If Kim Jong Il is acting now like King Kim II, which he has been for years to some degree, he may be thinking now as King Kim II as well. The self-imposed isolation of his well defended country would be one element of the throne's self-perpetuation. Establishing a clear heir to the throne would be another.

A very important third would be the need for foreign exchange monies with which to feed and clothe his people -- and with which to keep his military happy enough to maintain him and his offspring in power forever. A big international concern is that Kim II might sell a working, weaponized nuke to terrorists, perhaps for the "black market going rate" of $100 million. In these monarchical terms, his goal in doing so would be to refill the royal coffers for a while.

If the second underground nuke test was a weird form of fireworks celebration for Brilliant Comrade's annointment, the impending ICBM test might be a gesture demanding international respect for this Kim Dynasty, combined with what could well be a gesture intended as a ransom note in a case of global nuclear blackmail -- more properly, of grandiose extortion.

Why wouldn't China offer to buy out any nukes that Kim II might move close to selling, perhaps at a price of two or ten times the going rate for the ilk of al Qaeda? Beijing could simply provide to Kim Jong Il, as "foreign aid," a few briefcases full of a tiny fraction of the U.S. Treasury bonds they own. This would be a bargain, compared to the benefits to ultra-ambitious and autocratic China of maintaining peace and stability in Asia and preventing the global destabilization that a terrorist nuke blast would surely create. After all, China continues to show some disregard for human rights, so why should it care overly much for the welfare of Kim II's subjects? Foreign aid like this would actually or at least potentially improve the welfare of those subjects.

It's possible, at least as a hypothetical case study worth a little thinking about, that Kim II would be perfectly happy for his North Korea to continue on forever as some sort of Magical Kingdom, lost in a hidden valley of his own creation like a latter-day Red Shangri La. If so, then the multinational carrot-and-stick strategy combining diplomacy with sanctions needs enough flexibility to give Dear Leader and Brilliant Comrade what they desire. If the U.S. wants to continue a leadership role in applying "talk therapy" to solve the problem of the Kims, then the Obama Administration might do well to view North Korea as some sort of evil but negotiable Camelot.

-- Joe Buff

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