Editor’s Note: Jonathan Cristol is a fellow at the World Policy Institute and a senior fellow at the Center for Civic Engagement at Bard College. You can follow him @jonathancristol. The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Kim Jong Un is not crazy. Kim Jong Un is not irrational. He’s probably not stupid either.
We Americans frequently make the mistake of assuming that our enemies are crazy, irrational or stupid. We expect every other nation state to go along happily with what we want it to do. When a world leader does otherwise, we attribute our lack of understanding to some flaw in that person’s judgment.
Not all political systems mirror the United States; not all cultures are our culture; and not everyone’s interests are America’s interests.
We underestimate our enemies at our own peril, and the very real threat posed by Kim Jong Un in North Korea is no different.
Is it true that Kim executed his own security officials by having them shot with an anti-aircraft gun? South Korea certainly thinks so.
Is it true that Kim ordered the assassination of his own half brother with an illegal chemical weapon on the sovereign territory of another country? Again, it seems likely.
However, while horrifying, extreme and disgusting, these actions are part of a young leader’s consolidation of power.
Moreover, Kim is playing within the rules of his country’s system. North Korea’s system says he is the grandson of a god, and that the Kim family is owed “absolute obedience,” so he can do whatever he wants. If I believed myself to be part god, I might make different choices, but, as they say, “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”
Kim might be evil, but being evil is not the same thing as being stupid or irrational.
President Donald Trump, on the other hand, could be argued not always to be thinking straight.
To date, Trump has insulted disabled people, prisoners of war and Mexicans; responded to questions about virtually every topic with a discussion of his campaign victory; threatened to send troops to Mexico; put the phone down on Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull; reportedly told Angela Merkel that Germany owed the United States $374 billion in protection money. The list goes on.
Kim is focused on only one thing – the survival of his regime. Trump, meanwhile, has the attention span of a 4-year-old. Kim could prove to be a much savvier international actor than Trump. And while there are a variety of possible policy positions Trump could take vis-a-vis North Korea – negotiation, military action, doing nothing, to name a few – candidate Trump repeatedly expressed willingness to negotiate directly with Kim.
He even said that “there’s a 10% or 20% chance I could talk him out of having his damn nukes, because who the hell wants him to have nukes?”
But it would be a mark of folly to assume that Trump can outmaneuver Kim.
This Saturday marks the anniversary of the birth of Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung. North Korea typically times ballistic missile tests and nuclear tests to significant political events or anniversaries, and there is every expectation this Saturday will be no different.
Pyongyang has already told foreign media to get ready for a “big event.” In anticipation of such a test, Chinese President Xi Jinping warned North Korea that another nuclear test will result in a “significant reduction” of oil exports from China. Additionally, there is also a US carrier strike group heading to the Korean Peninsula, an action that North Korea has called a “reckless act of aggression.”
Tension in the region is mounting, and there are no good options.
Get our free weekly newsletter
The price of war is too high to bear, and the time for pre-emption passed on October 9, 2006, when Pyongyang said it conducted its first nuclear test. Doing nothing has only resulted in continued military development and aggression from North Korea.
Negotiation with Pyongyang now would require an extraordinarily adept negotiator with deep knowledge of the region, the country, the personalities and the issues, or at least someone with a deep bench of Korea, regional conflict, military and nuclear experts, and the willingness to listen to them.
Even without Trump, the volatility and unpredictability of the situation on the Korean Peninsula would be cause for serious concern. With Trump, who could literally do anything, the situation is downright terrifying.