Ever since their ill-fated missile tests two days ago, the media fearmonger brigade has been in full swing telling all of the dangers of North Korea and it's zany ruler Kim Jong Il. They are made out to be a real threat, an armed camp of a country itching for a fight and picking the biggest target out there, the U.S.A.
It is true that North Korea is militarized to the extreme. With conventional forces numbering almost 1 million, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) seems to be little more than a training facility buoyed by a communist government that is in turn propped up by a personality cult surrounding its leader. Seems like it could be trouble, right?
Consider what would happen if the DPRK decided to use those forces. Who would they attack? Seeing as their missile tests were a complete failure, and also the knowledge that a nuclear attack on the United States or Japan would get them seriously dead, any attack would most likely be a conventional forces attack on South Korea. This would then involve the some 30,000 U.S. military personnel in the DMZ along with the South Korean forces. This would then involve all of North Korea's neighbors and powers in the region including Russia, China and Japan.
How would this scenario play out? I don't think we have to worry about that and we have to worry even less about an attack on U.S. territory by North Korea.
Why is this? In a one-man communist dictatorship with an enigmatic leader like Kim Jong Il, the man is the state literally. Like Louis XIV saying "L'etat, c'est moi," the DPRK is really all focused on the personality of the leader. So, what kind of guy is Kim Jong Il.
Lots of people think he is crazy, actually mentally insane. I disagree. He is crazy in the same way that Saddam Hussein was crazy. He is a loathesome brute who's worst victims are his own people. He knows exactly the right buttons to push to get a reaction out of the West and especially the U.S. Ever since they made it into the "axis of evil," they have been in competition with the other members for the public eye.
In this sense, Kim Jong Il is like any political leader. What they crave most of all is attention: name in the paper, face on the television. It is my contention that Kim Jong Il thought that the world "madman du jour," who for a while has been Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was getting all of the face time and cries of revulsion from the West. In interest of regaining the position, cometh the missile testing. Saber-rattling still works because it can make people skittish.
Kim Jong Il is a political operator and a slick one at that. He knows, just as all of the leaders who decide to take on the role, just how far he can push other people before he must relent. After all, he is the ruler of a one-man communist dictatorship. This is how he maintains power: a combination of awe and fear.
It is often seen as the last gasp of dying powers to lash out seemingly at random in an attempt to bolster failing regimes and positions on the world stage. Austria-Hungary did it in 1914. The Soviet Union did it in 1956 (Hungary), 1968 (Czechoslovakia), 1979 (Afghanistan), 1990 (Lithuania). They feel their status is threatened and they need to do something to scare the folks at home back into submission and keep the people abroad on their toes.
What will eventually happen in North Korea? In a country so plagued with economic hardship, starvation and the general lack of openness that leads to a free society, it cannot last forever. If the twentieth century proved anything it was that seemingly strong totalitarian regimes cannot last forever because they are either situation-specific or try to do the impossible and completely control people and their minds. You cannot put a noose around the neck of an idea. You can only keep a people in frightened submission for so long.
Kim Jong Il knows exactly what he's doing and will play every move for all its worth. The question then becomes (and remains): will the U.S., China, Russia, Japan and the rest of the world let them get away with it?
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