No, Kim Jong Un Is Not Crazy

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Any 30-year-old with nuclear weapons would be cause for concern. Though blood-curdling threats from North Korea are part of an all-too-familiar diplomatic pattern, this cycle of rhetoric is unusually loud and seems to escalate on an almost daily basis. Coming from North Korea's young and untested new leader, Kim Jong Un, threats of missile strikes cannot be dismissed lightly.

A nervous UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon suggested that Pyongyang "is on a collision course with the world." Perhaps a slight exaggeration. But he has a point.

The recent waves of North Korean action and world reaction began after Pyongyang tested a long-range missile last December in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. That sparked a U.S.-led effort to tighten sanctions against the North Korean elite. Then North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in February, sparking another round of UN sanctions. This and annual U.S.-South Korean military exercises brought more Pyongyang defiance, boasting of its ability to strike the United States and canceling a military hotline to South Korea. Pyongyang also announced its withdrawal from the UN armistice (it has done so before), though the meaning of this last step is unclear. Then last Sunday, Pyongyang announced that nuclear weapons are "the nation's life" and "are neither a bargaining chip nor a thing for economic dealings."

[See a collection of political cartoons on North Korea.]

While Kim may be dangerous, he is not crazy; North Korea is not suicidal. Its behavior has all been aimed at regime survival. Pyongyang's current antics may be more about its own internal issues than the outside world. Kim took the reins little over a year ago, and is still trying to consolidate power. Creating a sense of being under siege, fantasy or not, helps keep North Korea's citizens under control.

Finally, having observed US actions in Iraq and Libya, Pyongyang views nuclear weapons as its ultimate insurance policy. This is all part of Pyongyang's own internal logic, however irrational it may appear.

Deterrence gets a bad rap these days, but the Obama administration has made its commitment to South Korean and East Asian security abundantly clear. Sending two B-2 bombers to the Republic of Korea during its recent military exercise, speeding up deployment of missile defense systems, and moving two U.S. destroyers to the region all send a clear message to Pyongyang.

[See a collection of political cartoons on defense spending.]

This contrived crisis atmosphere has led to renewed calls for talks with Pyongyang. The White House has said it is willing to engage the North if it puts its WMD on the table. Kim's recent "bromance" with ex-basketball star Dennis Rodman has led some to suggest that the North's provocations are aimed at getting Obama's attention.

Americans like to think that all problems have solutions. But the deep levels of distrust on both sides and an anachronistic regime trapped in its own myths leave little to seriously talk about. Pyongyang should recall that the Soviet Union had 30,000 nuclear warheads, yet that didn't save it from collapsing from its own contradictions.

Robert A. Manning

About Robert A. Manning Senior Fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council

Tags
North Korea
South Korea
national security
nuclear weapons
Kim Jong Un
Obama, Barack

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