Western experts believe North Korea will not attack South Korea militarily for three main reasons: The DPRK leadership is not suicidal; the North Korean regime is rational and, therefore, can be deterred by the U.S. conventional military presence and nuclear umbrella in the Republic of Korea; and the Korean People’s Army cannot mount a successful military attack without the blessing and backing of its main and sole ally, China, which no longer supports its military provocations and opportunistic behavior.
In my opinion, these assumptions are outdated and need to be reconsidered. Kim Jong-un may lash out after convincing himself he has no other choice to survive but attacking the U.S.-ROK alliance preemptively, thus throwing Northeast Asia into chaos and presenting his Chinese patron with a fait accompli.
Mr. Kim probably knows the growing weaknesses of his regime better than anyone else and must feel increasingly insecure and cornered. His reckless and provocative behavior threatening his neighbors, and ruthless and inhumane treatment of his own people led to escalating international pressure depleting his resources and severely restricting his policy options. This young man is under a lot of mental stress. He often snaps, and his closest aides usually lose their lives as a result. He does not sleep well at night. He must be haunted by the ghosts of scores of senior party, military and state officials whom he mercilessly executed on a whim, out of fear of betrayal. He lives in the phantom world of self-delusion.
We know that Mr. Kim, as a spoiled brat, can be very obdurate and hard to de-commit from his preferred course of action. He is impertinent and unruly, short-sighted and unwise, poorly versed in world diplomacy and inexperienced in power politics. He, therefore, may easily miscalculate his steps and snap or lash out, plunging his country into the abyss of fratricidal war.
Is Mr. Kim a martyr? We do not know. The North’s state ideology of Juche is jihadist and apocalyptic in nature. Mr. Kim believes that there is no reason for North Korea’s existence without the Kim clan at the helm, and if there is no North Korea, there is no reason for the rest of the world to exist. Since there is no world beyond North Korea in his mind, he must be willing to blow up our planet with nuclear force if his life and his regime’s survival are physically threatened. When one of his cousins was denied her love, she chose to take her life in Paris in 2006. Suicidal genes or mindset, if Mr. Kim’s grip on power is imperiled, he might decide to take away his life and those of his subjects with him in a nuclear inferno.
Although the North Korean leadership appears to be rational and deterrable, one can’t ignore that under some circumstances it may be a rational choice for Pyongyang to preempt the U.S. “decapitation strike” with its own conventional or nuclear attack — if the North Koreans come to believe that the U.S. “surgical strike” is inevitable.
On March 12, the KPA General Staff publicly declared that any U.S.-ROK military attempt to decapitate the North Korean leadership and to eliminate North Korean nuclear weapons would be preempted with the KPA all-out attack aimed at “liberating Seoul.” Maybe, the real question for Mr. Kim is not whether or not to attack, but when to strike first.
The North Koreans have convinced themselves that the United States will attack them sooner or later. They like to say that Serbia did not have nuclear weapons, but came under the U.S.-led NATO attack under some pretext invented by its enemies. Iraq did not have nuclear weapons — although Saddam pretended he did to keep his enemies at bay, he failed in his strategic deception and dissuasion campaign — and Iraq became the target of U.S. attack. Libya disarmed unilaterally and gave up its weapons of mass destruction, but it did not help Moammar Gadhafi to stave off the NATO attack. The DPRK leaders also saw what happened in the Balkans, Iraq and Libya, and they said repeatedly that they would not let that happen to their country.
It is obvious that China plays an enormous role in Korean security affairs, but I would speculate that Beijing’s perceived abandonment and very real bullying of Pyongyang may actually push the North to attack the South earlier, rather than taking a “wait and see” attitude and hoping for a change of hearts in the enemies’ capitals. Why? Because any hesitation and inaction in Pyongyang may allow the Chinese to use their economic clout and political influence to undermine the unity of the North Korean leadership and subvert the North Korean population from inside.
Mr. Kim does not want to allow the Chinese to slowly squeeze his regime out of power and replace it with a more pro-Beijing satellite, which will defer to Beijing’s higher national security interests and more important strategic relations. Mr. Kim may be better off by presenting his Chinese patron with the fait accompli and then asking for help in negotiating a peaceful settlement to the renewed inter-Korean civil war or defending his unified Korea against American reinvasion.
Mr. Kim’s nuclear threats are not just bluster and must be taken seriously. They reveal his penchant for coercive diplomacy and reflect his “hostile intentions” toward the United States and its allies. They are like cancer cells that tend to proliferate and eat all good cells around them. Mr. Kim is a bully who is used to getting what he wants. He is like a malignant tumor growing in the darkest corner of Northeast Asia: He is very good at evading the international immune system by various hidden and hideous means. He must be stopped and surgically removed from power so the people of North Korea can be free and happy, and the international community can live in peace, safe from Mr. Kim’s nuclear threats.
• Alexandre Mansourov, Ph.D., is a former diplomat and security practitioner. He is currently professor of security studies at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and professor of Asian studies at the School of Advanced International Studies of Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.
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