Kim Jong-un built nuclear weapons and delivery systems, tested them, and now he says he will use them. Maybe Kim wants to see if nukes will live up to their reputation. Maybe he took seriously what humorist philosopher Jack Handy suggested many years ago, “Instead of building newer and larger weapons of mass destruction, I think mankind should try to get more use out of the ones we have”. Maybe he’s just kidding. Maybe he just wants Dennis Rodman and the NBA All Stars to come back. Who knows?
At any rate, what were once considered empty threats are now being taken seriously by US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. He announced the deployment of a missile defense system in Guam, “They have nuclear capacity now, they have missile delivery capacity now. We take those threats seriously, we have to take those threats seriously.”
The question now is how to get North Korea off its war footing. In order to do that one must first go beyond the caricature of Kim Jong-un as the crazy boy dictator of a hermit kingdom.
The Atlantic, an American weekly that has maintained its intellectual integrity and credibility for over a hundred years, enumerated five myths about North Korea, myths that get in the way of understanding what makes North Korea “tick”, myths that can lead to simplified analysis and its sorry consequences.
What are those myths?
First, the young Kim and his team are crazy. He is not. They are not. Kim’s response to the new sanctions imposed on his country following its latest weapons tests plus the US-Sokor war games is the logical reaction of any leader whose country’s peace with a neighboring country is held together only by an armistice, not a peace treaty. Furthermore, North Korea is surrounded by allies of South Korea, what is Kim supposed to say or do about what’s happening? He can surrender or defend his country, what would a rational leader do?
Two, North Korea is a failed state. It is not.
The Atlantic, “It came close to being a failed state during the 1990s because of mass starvation. But Pyongyang weathered that storm…The economy has stabilized and even improved. Despite sanctions, trade has expanded significantly, not just with China but also with South and Southeast Asia, Africa, and Europe to the point where the North may have even enjoyed a current account surplus in 2011.”
North Korea, the Atlantic adds, is not comparable to developed countries but “it fits in if compared to developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.” (See also CIA World Factbook to see North Korea’s ranking compared to other states.)
Three, North Korea is a hermit kingdom. It is not. It may not have much to do with the US but it engages not only illicit arms trades with other countries, it also has legitimate business transactions with the rest of the world.
The Atlantic, “Did you know that North Korea sends hundreds of students overseas for educational and business training? Thousands of North Koreans work in China, in Mongolia where they produce goods for popular British clothing brands, in Kuwait where they work on construction projects, and in Russia where they labor in logging camps. A North Korean construction company is currently completing a museum near Cambodia’s famed Angkor temples featuring computer-generated simulations of the ancient monuments. Inside North Korea, just to give a few examples, the information technology sector is an outsourcing destination for other countries, even developing software and apps for the iPhone. Pyongyang’s sophisticated cartoon industry is reported to have been involved in the production of “The Lion King.” The German Kempinski group has been hired to operate Pyongyang’s largest hotel expected to open this spring. And residents and visitors to Pyongyang can now find Viennese coffee at the appropriately named “Viennese Coffee Restaurant.” Of course, North Korea is not an integral part of the international community, but neither is it a “hermit kingdom.””
Four, North Korea cheats on agreements. The short answer is “yes and no.” It cheats when it can. That’s pretty much what every other country guided by national interest would do.
Finally, there’s the myth that China is North Korea’s puppet master. It is not.
The Atlantic, “There are important limits on what China can and cannot do. Having influence is one thing, being the North’s puppet-master another. Hundreds of years of bad history between Korea and China, plus decades of dealing with a giant communist neighbor have taught the North how to manipulate China. Moreover, Beijing may be unhappy with the North’s bad behavior. But it cannot just throw Pyongyang to the American and South Korean wolves since maintaining quiet, stable borders to facilitate its own economic development is a critical priority.”
A realistic appraisal of Kim Jong-un is the first step towards a peaceful outcome to the impassé. Kim is not a cartoon character. He is a real person who has nuclear weapons at his disposal. A nuclear exchange between North Korea and the US could lead to a bigger war. An errant missile could be interpreted by another country as aggression. Who knows who else will join the fray for whatever reason once nuclear missiles start flying?
Buencamino is a fellow of Action for Economic Reforms (www.aer.ph).