Slate interviews B.R. Myers, a regional expert, about what North Korea is really trying to accomplish with all the saber-rattling and provocations.
The stars are aligning very nicely for the strategy [Kim Jong-Un] inherited from his father. Just as North Korea is perfecting its nuclear weaponry, China has acquired the economic power to punish South Korea for improving its missile defenses. Opinion polls in the South now strongly favor the left-wing presidential candidate Mun Jae-in, who in 2011 expressed hope for the speedy realization of a Northâ€“South confederation. If he or anyone else from the nationalist left takes over, years of South Korean accommodation of the North will ensue, complete with massive unconditional aid.
This went on under George W. Bush, and the alliance survived. Donald Trump, however, is much less likely to allow an ostensible ally to subvert UN sanctions while paying tributary visits to Pyongyang. And Kim Jong-un knows this. He knows that whatever security guarantees Trump gave to Seoul were made to the current conservative administration only. So Kim Jong-un has a better chance than his father did of pressuring the alliance to a breaking point. With Chinaâ€™s support he can pull a left-wing South Korean administration in one way while pushing the Americans in another.
Having lived in South Korea for the past 15 years, I donâ€™t share most Americansâ€™ confidence that it will always choose America over a North-supporting China. My own impressionâ€”bolstered by the ongoing controversy surrounding the stationing of the THAAD missile defense systemâ€”is that a growing number of South Koreans would rather see their stateâ€™s security compromised than risk their own prosperity.
Letâ€™s not overestimate South Koreansâ€™ attachment to their own state, which a sizable but influential minority still considers illegitimate. The most popular movie in Seoul at the moment is a thriller about a joint Northâ€“South effort to catch a criminal ring of North Korean defectors. That plot tells you something right there. The main North Korean character is played for cool by a handsome Tom Cruise type, while his South Korean counterpart is a homely, tired-looking figure of fun. There is a tradition of this sort of casting. The subtext: Serving the North is glamorous; serving the South, not so much. Letâ€™s keep in mind that Kim Jong-un is watching these movies too.
[W]e must stop focusing on short-term shifts and nuances in North Korean propaganda and instead grasp the fundamental consistency its ideology has maintained since 1945. We have to take that ideology seriously, however absurd the personality cult may seem. To a radical Korean nationalist, the division of the nation, the race, is an intolerable state of affairs. So too is the continued presence of the foreign army that effected that division in the first place.
Were Kim Jong-un to share our own leaderâ€™s love of slogan caps, his would read: Make Korea Whole Again. Unification is not just central to the Northâ€™s ideology, but the only sure and lasting solution to its security problem. That makes the nuclear crisis all that more difficult to solve. But we will never get anywhere if we donâ€™t face up to the true and frightening nature of the Northâ€™s goals. For decades our politicians and cartoonists have mocked North Korean leaders as squalling babies who wave missiles around just to get our attention. Weâ€™re the ones who need to grow up.