Kim Jong-un is said to be unpredictable and half-mad. Donald Trump is known to be unpredictable and often acts like half-mad. Both have nuclear missiles with intercontinental range. North Korea’s latest muscle-flexing was so scary that Trump said he might be forced to destroy North Korea. The foreign minister of North Korea replied that he had heard “sounds of a dog barking”. More hurting perhaps was German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s criticism of Trump’s trumpeteering. “Any form of military solution”, she said, “is totally inappropriate”.
We now have a clear picture of the conundrum into which these unpredictable half-mad gentlemen have led the world. To put it another way, we can now see the cleverness with which Kim and his tiny country have cornered the world’s mightiest military behemoth. May be the funny-looking dictator is not as mad as we are told. May be there is a method in his madness.
To see the nuclear annihilation threat in perspective, we should recognise the Kim family as contemporary history’s most successful political dynasty, lasting 72 years as of now with the third generation in charge. Kim Il-sung, a guerilla fighter against the Japanese who was trained by Russians, became the leader of the northern half of the country when Korea became free at the end of the war.
He invented a personality cult, projecting himself as equal to Marx, Lenin and Stalin. History books were re-written to give him a divine origin. If his pictures were printed on cheap paper, the printers were punished. Newspapers carrying pictures of him were not to be used as wrapping paper. He assumed the title of Great Leader and developed his own ideology called Juche (self-reliance).
Kim No 1 died in 1994 and his son Kim Jong-il took over. His was a desultory reign with the economy going down and a famine hitting the people in 1998. But he oversaw the country’s first nuclear step with a detonation in 2006. He died in 2011 and his son Kim Jong-un took control. Not that the dynasty had no critics. All the three Kims were ruthless in eliminating potential rivals through execution, torture and banishment into labour camps. Some estimates say that there are about 1.2 lakh political prisoners in the country today.
Kim No 3, currently facing Trump, has an obesity problem that’s uncontrolled (he weighs more than 200 pounds). He is said to have heart problems that felled his father and grandfather. But he is not just a playboy. Schooled in Switzerland, he is comfortable with French, German and English. He loves racing cars, football and pop music. Additionally, he is an ardent student of military history and strategy. Under him North Korea has seen modern consumer culture spreading. Agriculture has picked up, farmers are no longer slaves, but share croppers. Special economic zones have been developed. Overall prosperity has increased.
And, of course, the nuclear capability of the country has grown by leaps. Obviously, he is smart enough to know that if he drops a bomb in the wrong place, he and his country will be wiped out and the world will not moan for him. Like other nuclear powers, he must be seeing those lethal weapons as a protective shield rather than as a conquering device.
But he wants his nuclear pile to be equal to that of the US. Clearly, he has the contacts necessary to do so. In 2004, two years before the first detonation in the reign of Kim No 2, Pakistan’s nuclear scientist, A Q Khan, had admitted to have transferred the technology to North Korea. There must have been other players, too. And why not? Unknown players helped Israel secretly to amass a still-secret nuclear stockpile. What’s good for Tom must be good for Dick and Harry as well.
Israel went nuclear as insurance against its enemies. North Korea had the same motivation, the main enemy being the US, which led the Korean war against the North. Enemies of the US who had no insurance met with horrible deaths. Saddam Hussein was trapped in an underground hole and eventually hanged before TV cameras. And all that on the basis of a lie—that Saddam had developed weapons of mass destruction.
Well, here’s North Korea proudly displaying weapons of mass destruction. Even the bombasting Trump given to bombastic threats is unable to strike. So Kim No 3 has won so far. Bullies produce bullies. But if one of them makes a miscalculation, all of us go up in smoke. Scary indeed.