Kim’s saber-rattling looks like a prolonged childish tantrum

In this March 13 photo, taken during a tank competition between different units, Kim Jong-un looks at the camera, not in the direction the tank is moving. Image/ Rodong Sinmun

With Kim Jong-un now walking a path of military escalation, defense experts in South Korea and the United States are assessing the impact on their security. Kim’s frequent inspections of North Korean military facilities and defense industry sites – 11 times this year alone, according to my count from the Rodong Sinmun – suggest an effort to sustain an atmosphere of tension on the peninsula.

As we watch this more closely, however, we find themselves shifting to the assumption that, rather than directly jeopardizing security, Kim’s actions represent a form of “provocative agitation.” Its main aim is not to threaten the outside, but to appease sentiment within North Korea and entice economic assistance.

To make that point, we should review the recent history of Kim’s rule. 

In 2017, when then-US President Donald Trump vowed to “destroy” North Korea and pushed through tough UN sanctions, Kim sought a route to South Korea. This led to a summit with the South’s Moon Jae-in, who mistakenly believed Kim was willing to denuclearize.

Kim fueled Moon’s mistaken belief by inviting him to Pyongyang. There, in a speech at the May Day Stadium before 100,000 people, Moon declared, “There will be no more war on the Korean peninsula. A new era of peace has opened. Let us pledge to transform our beautiful land from Baekdu to Halla into a permanent foundation of peace without nuclear weapons and nuclear threats, to be inherited by future generations.” 

Kim’s justification for any military build-up evaporated into thin air that day. Though not officially confirmed or reported, North Koreans most likely believed the South Koreans were providing assistance. 

“People in Pyongyang assumed that a president visiting from the wealthier Korea wouldn’t come empty-handed,” said Choi, 56, who defected south this time last year. “People likely believed there was a considerable amount of financial aid.” 

In fact, they were wrong. South Korea did not provide cash assistance. Kim may have expected it, but it never materialized. All Kim got was a message of peace. Infuriated, he took to provocations again and dramatically demolished the inter-Korean liaison office building in Kaesong.

On May 4, 2019, he launched two new KN-23 short-range ballistic missiles which involved 240-millimeter and 300-mm multiple rocket launcher systems. The launches, which came after an 18-month hiatus, violated a UN Security Council resolution banning launches using ballistic missile technology as well as the inter-Korea “September 19 Pyongyang Declaration, which called for the cessation of all hostile acts in all domains. Five days later, North Korea fired two more KN-23 missiles.

On July 25, 2019, Kim directly supervised more missile launches, citing concerns about South Korea’s introduction of F-35A stealth fighter jets and the upcoming joint South Korea-US military exercises scheduled for August. At this event, Kim threatened Moon by stating, “South Korean authorities should recognize the danger of the situation in advance and refrain from self-destructive actions such as introducing the latest weapons or conducting military exercises. Do not make the mistake of ignoring today’s Pyongyang warning.”

On August 10, 2019, he launched a new tactical surface-to-surface ballistic missile. In response, the South’s then-Director of National Security, Chung Eui-yong, led a video conference with government ministers at the presidential Blue House in Seoul. The next day, Kwon Jong-gun, the director of US affairs at the foreign minister in Pyongyang, dismissed South Korean leaders as “frightened dogs” and tried to reach out for direct talks with Washington

Four days later, on the eve of national liberation day, which is celebrated in both Koreas, the party’s Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of the Fatherland in Pyongyang issued a statement expressing its contempt for South Korea’s presidential office. 

“Laughing uproariously at oneself is the nature of a small-minded person,” it said. “How dare they recklessly insult us when we are right here, listening. South Korean authorities may find it amusing, but it is clear that they are incredibly laughable individuals. They should be the subject of ridicule for daring to speak so recklessly.”

Even Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister who had been a guest at the Blue House in 2018, expressed dismay at the presidential office’s “incompetent thinking,” calling it a “perfect fool” and “frightened dog.”

Given this history, it is reasonable to view the current saber-rattling in the same context as part anger at not being given what he wants and part strategy to get it. 

“Kim Jong-un’s current military provocations are merely a continuation of the tantrum he had when he didn’t get the support he expected from former President Moon,” defector Choi said.

Kim’s personal posturing seems to back up this assumption. In recent photos of Kim driving a tank, he seems more conscious of the camera than of the tank he is supposed to be driving. When he turns up to inspect military units with his 11-year-old daughter, they don’t look that different. 

Appearing with her in this way at this time of heightened military tension suggests he doesn’t really believe things are that tense at all. This raises a question about his awareness of the impact of what he says and does. Indeed, it raises questions about his grip on reality.

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