by Stephen Bryen
Here is the question: either Kim Jong Un is a madman or he is working for the CIA?
In regard to the former, the popular view is that he is crazy as a loon, that he is living in a surrealistic world where the North Koreans think they can intimidate the United States, Japan and South Korea, threaten nuclear war, without any real consequences. Or he has come to believe, as his cronies probably have told him, that the United States is readying war against North Korea, so his best bet is to threaten a nuclear strike. Hence the movement of a couple of mobile ballistic missiles to the sea coast, so that they can credibly claim they can hit something, maybe Japan, maybe Guam. His idea: stare down the Americans, show they are cowards, and get them to say they won’t start a war against him.
The other theory is that Kim is working for the CIA. By setting up his ossified and repressive military for annihilation, he helps the CIA to solve a vexing problem –an aggressive Iran that threatens American interests in the Persian Gulf. Under this theory, Kim is being well paid and will be protected for causing an attack on North Korea that will result in the liquidation of key North Korean military assets –missiles and nuclear establishment, and factories that support the military. Well within the means of the U.S. Air Force, there needs to be a suitable provocation and young Kim is working overtime to create the right pretext. In this scenario, no one can blame Obama for doing what he had to do, and doing it, shall we say, comprehensively. If Iran is denied rockets and nuclear know how, the regime in Tehran is toast. Without teeth it is an overextended regime that is close to bankrupt both financially and politically. Its influence will quickly decline as the Mullah-regime itself disintegrates. And, for its part, the administration can then try and stabilize around moderate Sunni Moslem rulers and, even possibly, start to introduce a kind of guided democracy to the region.
Not possible? Both theories are ludicrous? What is really happening is that the North Koreans have got themselves exercised to try and cover up deterioration at home, with starvation and lack of energy resources close to the top of their worry list. By raising the looming threat of the United States, the North Koreans are playing for an American bailout, shipping lots of food and money to the regime to keep them from being militarily crazy. And it seems to be working –the State Department is running about saying they want to restart the six power nuclear disarmament talks with North Korea –how much do you think that will cost?
If this is the poker being played, it is a hazardous game.
To begin with, moving missiles around and threatening nuclear annihilation, sending foreign embassies home, evacuating the North Korean embassy in London, all creates an impression Kim and company are not playing a bluff. How, for example, can we be sure they have not got a couple of nuclear warheads on the missiles they moved over to the coast to get the maximum range out of them?
For the U.S. the issue boils down to a tough choice. A U.S. surgical strike can easily knock out the threatening missiles and their command and control “system” (assuming there is one). The benefit of this is the nuclear threat is, as is said, OBE (Overcome By Events). The problem is the North Koreans will start to shell South Korea, putting Seoul at risk. So to do the job right, a big effort has to be made to neutralize the entire North Korean bombardment system, which is not easy since many of their guns are in hardened locations and are hard to destroy.
Alternatively, the U.S. and South Korea can wait until the other shoe falls. But by then someone (who knows for sure who) may be hit by a nuclear weapon, albeit one with a low to moderate yield. When that happens the only possible result will be retaliation on North Korea with nuclear weapons.
In fact, the administration has made the decision, which is risky, to wait and see, to try and “lower” the rhetoric, which in any case has been amazingly soft, and to hold back on certain planned exercises to try and restore some calm. Under this theory, the North Koreans will climb down, things will stabilize, and life will go on as normal (however that is defined on either side of the DMZ).
We are in the retreat mode at present. But North Korea is a strange place. Usually simple minded and culturally reclusive dictatorships interpret retreat as weakness and up the ante. We will soon see if that is the case. If it is, fate may be tempted and whether Kim Jong Un is a CIA employee or not won’t matter.