Kim Jong-un seeks to blackmail West to support regime

Thomas Koenig
NEWS outlets are ablaze with speculation about where the latest chapter in North Korea's power play will go next. Fear of nuclear attack or of rapid escalation along the North-South border abounds. Threats of North Korean "preemptive nuclear strikes" are met with the counter-threat of missile defence deployments by the US and South Korea. But are these developments really a sign of the end of times?

Look at what we know. North Korea is, so far, following a trusted strategy. International relations theory dictates that sovereign nations are motivated by a need for self-preservation. And despite isolationist claims to the contrary, North Korea has been ensuring its continued existence solely through aid from other countries. Since the late 1950s, its leaders have issued outlandish threats, hoping to scare the world into calming Pyongyang's elite by throwing aid at the problem (and its starving population). Paradoxically, this strategy has worked.

Aid has been flowing in from various sources: North Korea has received substantial assistance from its ideological ally China. But other unlikely partners have also been chipping in. The public buses passing by the enormous statue of the country's Eternal President Kim Il-sung in Pyongyang are decommissioned Japanese models from the 1980s. Houses and huts have been heated, and the country's tree bark and root diet diversified, through extensive help from the US.

North Koreans believe that they can only convince others to assist them by flexing their muscles and issuing threats - recent actions primarily serve as a reminder to the world about the threat the country presents. The louder they shout, the more they might receive. At least according to their thinking.

But as disconcerting as recent language has been, it is unlikely that the threats will escalate as long as South Korea and the rest of the world remain calm. North Korea knows that throwing the first stone would mean the irreversible end of the Great Leader's nation.

Importantly, we should not forget that, while authoritarian regimes may not care about the wellbeing of their people, they certainly care about domestic popularity. While it is difficult to substantiate with facts, the 2011 leadership change from Kim Jong-il to his son Kim Jong-un has possibly caused an erosion of popular support at home.

There are striking similarities between contemporary North Korea and George Orwell's dark vision of an authoritarian 1984: Kim Jong-un's country may be experiencing its own version of the Two Minutes of Hate. While the starving population of Orwell's novel was asked to unite in hatred for (fictitious) foreign enemies, North Koreans are re-directing their own frustrations about their miserable lives towards the world beyond.

In a few weeks, when tensions will have eased again, Kim Jong-un will be the first to claim responsibility for the prevention of an international attack or invasion, as always safeguarding the well-being of his people. Until the next big threats are issued.

Thomas K├Ânig is programme co-ordinator for the China programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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