24 October 2016
Kim Jong-il (left), the father of Kim Jong-un (right), was a master of 'madman diplomacy'. Photo: Kyodo
Kim Jong-il (left), the father of Kim Jong-un (right), was a master of 'madman diplomacy'. Photo: Kyodo

The secret behind Kim Jong-un’s periodic madness

The North Korean army recently shelled South Korea again, and the North’s paramount leader, Kim Jong-un, declared a state of war.

Some commentators described the military standoff on the peninsula as the “worst crisis” since the end of the Korean War.

News media around the world were basically asking the same question: what is Kim up to this time?

In fact, it is not a difficult question to answer, as Kim’s provocative and aggressive moves often follow a set pattern.

So his maneuvers in the past might provide some insight into the motives behind his latest move.

The supreme guiding principle of the North Korean regime is not any form of ideology whatsoever but rather an animal instinct for survival.

Likewise, the reason why North Korea has developed its own nuclear weapons is not because it wanted to be a great power, nor is it because it wanted to manifest its dignity.

Rather, the nuclear arms are only for show.

Kim and his predecessors have mastered the essence of the “neorealist” principles in international politics to the utmost — where the key to your survival is to have your nuclear weapons ready but not use them.

The North Koreans are well aware of the fact that no matter how many nuclear weapons they have in their arsenal, once they start an all-out war with their neighbors, the only possible outcome would be their own annihilation.

Knowing that brinkmanship is the key to getting what they want, they understand that as long as they don’t start a full-scale war, there are always benefits to gain — such as international aid, the sympathy of international organizations or even bargaining chips at the negotiation table — through triggering small-scale and manageable military confrontations with the South every once in a while as the need arises.

There is a special term in the field of international relations known as “madman diplomacy”, which refers to unconventional or often unorthodox diplomatic maneuvers that bring about benefits and gains through the creation of a crisis, and Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, was a master of this art form.

The reason why Kim Jong-un “goes crazy” more frequently than his late father did is probably not only because he is an impetuous and ambitious young man who easily gets fired up and hasn’t mastered the art of brinkmanship as well as his father did, but also because of domestic political needs.

A carefully perpetrated “crisis” by Kim can not only bring about diplomatic benefits but also provide an opportunity for him to shake up his cabinet, crack down on political opponents and get rid of someone he doesn’t like, which otherwise could not be done easily in peaceful times.

So is there any way of survival for the Kim family apart from madman diplomacy?

Judging from the current situation, there is probably not.

Although self-dubbed the “light of the world” and “the last hope of mankind on earth”, North Korea sometimes does fail to cater for the needs of its people, mainly due to the sanctions imposed by hostile foreign powers and “the treachery and betrayal of some once steadfast allies”.

To uphold solidarity and fortify the faith of their subjects, North Korea’s leaders therefore have to constantly remind their people of foreign threats and subversion.

However, a propaganda campaign alone is not enough, because people have already got so used to them.

It takes more real-life collective actions — such as preparation for war, emergency evacuation, the sounding of air raid sirens and small-scale exchanges of fire with the South — to convince the public of the western conspiracy.

After all, collective experience will create lasting memories among the North Korean people and is much more powerful than words on TV.

The article first appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Aug 25.

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Associate professor and director of Global Studies Programme, Faculty of Social Science, at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; Lead Writer (Global) at the Hong Kong Economic Journal

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