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The isolation of North Korea will only get worse. That much is clear from the recent ratcheting-up of rhetoric between Pyongyang, Washington, and most surprisingly, Beijing.
Kim has seen his country enter even further isolation as Chinese Premier Xi Jinping has decided to accede to international sanctions and block coal imports, which are the main export for North Korea and a source of legitimacy in the global economy. Furthermore, relations with Malaysia have deteriorated sharply in recent months following the assassination in Kuala Lumpur’s airport of Kim’s older brother on what were suspected to be the leader’s direct orders.
Malaysia was one of the few countries in the world, alongside other ASEAN partners such as Thailand and Vietnam, to maintain relations of any kind with the Hermit Kingdom, and even allows Air Koryo, the isolated national flag carrier for North Korea, to land. It is suspected many of these flights were, in fact, to facilitate cash transfers, alongside imports destined for the kitchen cupboards of Pyongyang’s aristocracy.
The misplaced aggression that Kim has fired off at Malaysia is minor compared to his missteps with China. Not only is China his only friendly neighbor, it is his country’s major trading partner, sole advocate and perhaps an emerging superpower. It also helped ensure Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, was able to found his country and live to tell the tale past the Korean War. None of this seems to matter much to Kim, who has become verbose in his criticism of his ally, accusing it of dancing to Washington’s tune, and in doing so, risking his own downfall.
Kim’s refusal to acknowledge his reliance on foreign support is tactical. He desires to be viewed as independent and strong not just to maintain a semblance of popularity, but to keep fear high domestically.
So long as his enemies at home continue to fall to the firing squads, and he is able to demonstrate the power of a different kind by eliminating his older brother, he seems to feel confident he can buy enough time to procure a nuclear weapon launching device capable of reaching America’s West Coast. Once such a situation arises, he believes the principle of mutually assured destruction will come into play just as it did during the Cold War, with his isolation perhaps thawed by a form of détente.
However, there are several factors Kim is not in control of, that the Soviet Union was. It exercised colonial-style control and influence over much of the world, including the Warsaw Pact and its own Soviet republics. Eighty countries defied the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympiad. How many countries would attend an Olympics held in Pyongyang?
China will not support Kim Jung-un indefinitely, and he cannot function completely isolated. He seems confident that he can gain inter-continental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States soon enough. The question is, how soon?
Donald Trump was warned by President Obama before his inauguration that the defining issue of his presidency would be North Korea. Within his first 100 days, Trump has answered the challenge in a bellicose fashion, threatening a first-strike.
The results of such an attack could vary depending on its extent. If the US were to carry out a limited strike meant to reduce North Korea’s ability to launch ICBM’s, this would be in the vein of the deliberations the Israeli cabinet had in the early 2010s, when it nearly voted to launch an airstrike against Iran’s nuclear centers.
The logic that guided Israel and America’s considerations for preventing Iranian capability was that a concentrated strike of bunker-busting bombs might remove the immediate threat and bring Iran to the negotiating table. Such expectations would be extremely optimistic in dealing with North Korea, however.
Kim Jong-un is not only unpredictable, he is entirely untested on the world arena. With no prior military engagements or crises of such magnitude, a limited strike might be simply lead to immediate escalation, resulting in perhaps millions of deaths in the region.
Seoul is within the range of thousands of missiles, as is Tokyo. The Sea of Japan is a common landing area for failed and successful missile launches out of its belligerent neighbor. Thus, the consequences of a mistake could be enormous, and at the same time, both the US and Kim feel that time is running out to act. The problem is, at this point any action not taking place at a diplomatic table is likely to end with massive casualties, most of which would be civilians.