CAVAN HOGUE. What does Kim Jong Un really want?

Mar 11, 2019

There has been much speculation about what Kim wants and what happened at the summit. When dealing with characters like Trump and Bolton anything is possible but Kim is much more focussed and any consideration of current events should never lose sight of the fundamentals that underlie anything Kim does. He wants to stay in power but is not interested in promoting any ideology to any other country. His foreign policy is therefore essentially defensive. DPRK criminal activity abroad is essentially to make money or knock off people who might be a domestic threat. Threats to other countries are a dog baring its teeth to potential attackers. To attack the US would be suicide.

Kim is a ruthless dictator and like all dictators he has to watch his back in the palace and keep the support of the masses through a combination of carrot and stick. He has created a cult but, unlike Saudi Arabia’s pernicious Wahabi ideology, the spirit of Juche is not exportable. There are plenty of circuses but provision of bread leaves something to be desired, which suggests he would like sanctions to be eased but what price is he able to pay?  At the same time, making people afraid of a threat from nasty foreigners is a time- tested tactic for politicians of all kinds, as we know only too well in Australia.

Some years ago Kim observed that if Saddam Hussein had had nuclear weapons he would still be there and he is probably right. He sees the major threat to DPRK security as coming from the USA which has a formidable record of invading or overthrowing governments that it sees as a threat to its strategic, ideological or commercial interests. A nuclear capability is therefore a sensible insurance policy. If he were to accept US demands to get rid of this capability what protection would he have? Even if the US withdrew its forces from the South and from Japan, American aircraft carriers and long range missiles would still have the capability to bomb the DPRK into submission.

His only conceivable protector is China. The lessons of the Korean War are clear. Kim’s grandfather’s invasion of the South failed and something similar would fail again, but China showed that it will intervene if it sees a threat to its security as was the case with Macarthur’s push to the Yalu. China wants a buffer state which is an ally or at least not allied to potential enemies like the US.  This means Kim must keep China on side and this puts some restrictions on his freedom of action but is basically a positive. Calls for China to “do more” to support the US  ignore this factor.

Relations with the South are tricky. There have been signs of rapprochement which President Moon is very keen to encourage. But how far can Kim go? There was a song in 1919 about American troops returning home from Europe which began: “How are you going to keep them down on the farm now that they’ve seen Paree?” To expose North Koreans to life in the South would undermine Kim’s claim that life in the North is superior to that of the South and sow the seeds of revolt. Some degree of détente is possible and has already begun but an open border is surely not on the cards.

So these fundamentals suggest that token gestures to ease sanctions and a better relationship with the South are not unrealistic expectations but to accept US demands might not be a sensible policy for the DPRK. The most we could hope for would be some relaxing of tension while keeping a wary eye on China. It would not be in DPRK interests to give the Americans what they want now, however much Trump huffs and puffs and Bolton cries havoc. Kim will play his cards very close to the chest.

Cavan Hogue is a retired Australian ambassador who served as Alternate Delegate to UNCRK in 1960-62 and covered Korea as Head of the Asia Division in DFAT in 1990-91.



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