It is difficult to determine what makes a madman tick. With some, it is possible to detect a method to their madness.
But with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, there doesn’t seem to be any method at all. Indeed, to Western observers, the entirety of the laughably named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea seems more like an open-air lunatic asylum — the primary difference being that, with an asylum, someone with a connection to reality is in charge of the keys.
Kim Jong Un has inherited the keys to the Hermit Kingdom from his father and grandfather before him. But at 29 or 30 years old — it is unclear whether he was born in 1983 or 1984 — he is struggling to prove he can keep them. So, as has been the usual practice in North Korea for years, Kim is ramping up the bluster against the West and, specifically, the United States.
The problem today is that North Korea can back up its ranting with nuclear weapons.
North Korea has been a confirmed nuclear power since 2009, with some tests dating back as far as 2006. The country conducted its most recent nuclear test in February. The North also has rockets that can reach as far as Alaska, and it is working on the development of true intercontinental ballistic missiles.
For years, we here in the United States have been told that, while North Korea may have bombs and missiles, it cannot put the two together for a credible long-range nuclear threat. Last week, however, congressional testimony suggested that the Pentagon believes North Korea may indeed have made nuclear bombs compact enough to be carried on their rockets.
That makes the North’s recent bluster all the more worrisome.
The Korean War of 1950 to 1953 never officially ended; a cease-fire agreement has held, more or less, for these 60 years. Last month, Kim declared that the armistice is no longer valid and that a state of war exists again between the North and the South.
As our intelligence sources report the preparation of missiles at North Korean launch sites, Kim’s rhetoric grows more heated by the day. North Korea’s pronouncement last Friday declares that nuclear war is “inevitable” and that Tokyo will be “consumed in nuclear flames.”
Perhaps this is all just noise to get for North Korea what Kim Jong Un wants. But just what he wants is difficult to determine.
Is Kim hoping that his threats will yield an end to economic sanctions and increased food aid to his starving country? Or is his act aimed at an internal audience — an attempt by an untested young man to show he is as “tough” as his father and grandfather?
Either way, the United States has little choice but to prepare for the worst.
Nowhere on Earth is the contrast between free-market democracy and totalitarian communism more stark than at the border between the two Koreas. Satellite photos taken at night show South Korea gleaming with electric vitality; the North is as dark as a grave.
Surely, Kim understands that the United States has a vital interest in the continued freedom of South Korea. And just as surely, he must understand that our patience with his antics cannot last indefinitely.
China has long been North Korea’s chief patron and likely has little interest in Kim Jong Un’s sideshow.
Our best chance for long-term influence in North Korea may be through Beijing.
We have serious philosophical differences with the Chinese government. But at least there we are dealing with rational people.