Foreign policy rarely captures the public imagination the way it does with North Korea. It’s no mystery why, between the hyperbolic threats, the eccentricities of its leaders and its tiny but very real nuclear arsenal. In a world of elusive threats ranging from terrorism to climate change, North Korea offers a throwback to the days when good and evil were easy to locate on a map.
And what evil there is to locate. “Stalinist” is the term that is thrown around, but these days “Mein Kampf” might be a better guide to the country than “Das Kapital.”
The virtues of militarism and the purity of the North Korean race have assumed the central roles in regime propaganda (along with the cult of the Dear Leader, of course). The word “communism” isn’t even in the constitution anymore.
The Soviet Union is not without its use as a guide though, as mass starvation and a network of gulags exist in a manner that would not be unfamiliar to Stalin himself.
What are we to make, then, of the recent threats and blusters coming from the land of fascism with increasingly less of a communist face?
The central problem that bedevils American policy is that the regime in Pyongyang could have one of either two goals, each with vastly different implications.
Kim Jong Un & Co. may aim merely at their own survival.
Perhaps the nuclear arsenal is purely designed to prevent any Iraq-style attempts at regime change and its recent bluster is for impressing domestic audiences and reassuring the generals that North Korea’s “military-first” model will not change anytime soon.
Or maybe they take their own propaganda seriously and really aim at total domination of the Korean peninsula, gambling that their nuclear capabilities would make it too dangerous for any outsider to step in and interfere.
In other words, maybe we are dealing with a Hitler, expansionist and only understanding the nature of force, or maybe with a Franco, despicable but not presenting a serious threat to his neighbors. It is virtually impossible to know.
It is not difficult to see the problem this presents us.
If Un is following option number one, he needs to be reassured of America’s peaceful intentions so he will not rashly launch a pre-emptive strike. If it is the second one though, there is no amount of diplomacy or aid that will do us any good.