Because of the total control of media, the North Korean people are unaware that their “Great Successor” is generally viewed globally as a failing wannabe successor to his late father’s status as a Western-antagonizing, fear inducing leader with a powerful military and the willingness to use it. His first military effort, to launch a long-range rocket capable of carrying a nuclear payload to distant shores (under the guise of a weather satellite), exploded moments after ignition and generated a more humiliating “loser” perception among his enemies.
Some predict that the young man will not be able to rise above the clutter and assume true power in his state. “Officially, Kim Jong-un is part of a triumvirate heading the executive branch of the North Korean government along with Premier Choe Yong-rim and parliament chairman Kim Yong-nam (no relation). Each nominally holds powers equivalent to a third of a president's powers in most other presidential systems. Kim Jong-un commands the armed forces, Choe Yong-rim heads the government and Kim Yong-nam handles foreign relations. In practice, however, it is generally understood that Kim Jong-un, like his father before him, exercises absolute control over the government and the country.” Wikipedia.
Recently, to bolster his ascension to power, Kim’s been getting lots of cool new titles to add to his list: First Chairman of the ruling National Defense Commission (the top military post) and first secretary of the Workers’ (Communist) Party, a newly-created position that would seem to give him the authority to rule the isolated East Asian country. And while he loves the armored car deliveries of U.S. currency (in exchange for cheap assembly line labor at an industrial park a few miles north of the DMZ) to pay for his decadent Western luxuries, he seems recently to be more focused on proving his manhood to the world with a litany of new threats to South Korea and its leadership, whom Kim claims disrespectfully snubbed his father’s funeral tributes. The West also challenged his right to launch this “weather satellite” following his agreement to suspend nuclear and missile tests in exchange for food and medical supplies.
On April 23rd, Kim accused the South of slandering his leadership, and promised “special actions” by his military in retaliation. “[T]he North Korean military said it would act ‘soon’ and named its targets, including the government of President Lee and several South Korean newspapers and television stations… ‘The special actions of our revolutionary armed forces will start soon to meet the reckless challenge of the group of traitors,’ the North Korean military command’s ‘special operation action group’ said in a statement carried by the North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency. ‘They will reduce all the rat-like groups and the bases for provocations to ashes in three or four minutes, in much shorter time, by unprecedented peculiar means and methods of our own style.’…
“North Korea has regularly threatened to attack the government of President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea. In recent weeks, its threats have become harsher and more specific, prompting some analysts to warn that North Korea’s new leadership under Kim Jong-un might instigate a military provocation as part of its effort to establish Mr. Kim’s authority at home and boost his negotiating leverage with the United States…Mr. Lee called the launch a waste of money that could have been used to buy food for the North Koreans. Last week, he also advised ‘the young leader in the North’ to abandon his country’s collective farm system to resolve its food problem. South Korea also unveiled a new cruise missile capable of hitting targets anywhere in the North… North Korea staged mass rallies of soldiers and workers calling the Lee government ‘a group of rats’ - an extremely offensive phrase in Korean culture -- and vowing to destroy it.” New York Times, April 23rd.
While the South generally does not respond to such threats, there are signs that both the United States and the South Korean leadership have raised the alert levels in the South, and no one would be surprised if in fact some form of attack occurred.
To make matters even worse, North Korea appears about to test its third underground nuclear device sometime in the immediate future in clear defiance of its pledges and the desires of most of the rest of the world. Previous tests occurred in 2006 and 2009. Kim seems hell-bent on showing the world that his cherubic face and diminutive stature belie a fundamental “devil may care” bravado.
The United States was powerless to neutralize North Korea’s ascension to nuclear weapons status during the reign of Kim Jong-il, young Kim’s father, because Korea sat under the protective umbrella of the Peoples Republic of China, and, to a lesser extent, Russia. But clearly, his most recent round of saber-rattling has even his allies concerned. As usual, the coming months are going to provide interesting insights – perhaps with dangerous consequences – into this nascent leader’s bid to justify his rise to power in the eyes of the world, and perhaps in the eyes of his own military leadership.
I’m Peter Dekom, and history is replete with tragedies generated by deeply insecure dictators with too many weapons at their disposal.