Kim Jong-un is at the center of both a bloody tragedy and a comedy of errors. China’s People’s Daily, for instance, was fooled by an Onion story that declared the pudgy North Korean dictator the world’s Sexiest Man Alive for 2012. Since Beijing is a loyal booster of the Pyongyang regime, this was news worth celebrating. And so the People’s Daily — a propaganda organ of the Chinese Communist Party — wrote a glowing article about the Onion report, accompanied with a 55-page slideshow proudly detailing Kim Jong-un’s sexiness.
While the Onion story, of course, was pure parody, Kim Jong-un is actually in the running for an award that carries with it serious prestige — Time Magazine’s Person of the Year. As of this writing, Kim Jong-un is way out ahead in Time’s online voting. Of course, Kim’s rank is mostly due to a bit of tomfoolery conducted by 4chan, the notorious online bulletin board site.
But maybe the pranksters and trolls are onto something. Time’s editors will be the ones ultimately selecting the Person of the Year, a recognition of the person who, “for better or for worse…has done the most to influence the events of the year.” Here’s how the attention-craving Kim Jong-un fits that description. In his first year as North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim has consolidated his power considerably through purges. He’s thumbed his nose at allies and enemies alike. And he still has a big card left to play: a planned satellite launch in the next week or so that is likely a smokescreen for a ballistic missile test.
What’s the Big Idea?
So why exactly has Kim Jong-un become such a popular subject of online hoaxes and memes? Perhaps this is due to the comic strip image we have of him: he’s a goofy looking hermit, a narcissistic, self-caricaturing little brat who has constructed a personality cult so ridiculous that it reminds one of Chuck Norris facts. And yet, only certain parts of the image we have of Kim hold true, says Victor Cha, the former director for Asian Affairs at the National Security Council. And there are dangerous implications for getting this wrong.
In an interview with Big Think, Cha told us that the single biggest misconception about North Korea is “this notion that they are crazy and irrational.” So what exactly do we know about Kim and the political apparatus he has aligned himself with?
Watch the video here:
What’s the Significance?
Today being December 7th, the 71st anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s certainly a good time to reflect on global threats.
Here’s some sobering context: the number of global terrorist attacks quadrupled after the start of the Iraq invasion, according to the Global Terrorism Index compiled by the Institute for Economics and Peace, a think tank.
So what about the risk posed from rogue states like North Korea? Victor Cha says that we run the risk of underestimating the threat level if we buy into the idea that Kim Jong-un is a weak buffoon. As Cha points out, this is the second greatest misconception about North Korea. After all, the regime has separated enough plutonium for roughly 10 nuclear warheads and is “on a systematic path to try to create long-range missiles with nuclear warheads that can reach the United States,” Cha says. “That makes it a very serious threat.”
If North Korea’s planned satellite launch is successful, the regime will have demonstrated it has the capability to hit a city as far away as Los Angeles. That would be a huge milestone. All previous launch attempts have failed, the last one coming in April as part of the festivities surrounding the 100th anniversary of patriarch Kim Il Sung’s birth. December 17 will mark the one year anniversary of Kim Jong-il’s death. A good day for a missile test? Or is there some other motivation behind the timing?
As Austin Ramzy notes in Time:
The launch comes at a time of elections and transition at the top of almost all the governments directly involved in the dormant six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. China is undergoing a once-in-a-decade leadership transition, the U.S. just held its presidential election, South Korea holds its presidential election later this month, and Japan goes to the polls on Dec. 16. North Korea, it seems, wants to remind the world it can’t be forgotten.
So should we view this as a desperate display of power? As Victor Cha reminds us, there is risk involved in assigning infantile motivations to Kim Jong-un’s behavior. The hard question that remains unanswered, after all, is what good would an advanced nuclear program do for you if you’re North Korea? It costs you a lot of money. It unites your enemies against you while leaving allies like China hanging out to dry in the diplomatic arena. So expect economically-crippling sanctions to accompany your nuclear ambitions.
Furthermore, the threat of retaliation proved successful in deterring dictators throughout the many tense decades of the Cold War. So what makes you, Kim Jong-un, so special? What exactly do you stand to gain? The same question, of course, should be asked of Iran’s Ahmadinejad. And in both cases, the next question that should follow is whether either of these men are sane. And yet, is there some advantage each man hopes to gain by convincing us otherwise? It’s hard, after all, to negotiate with a lunatic who thinks he has nothing to lose.
What further complicates the matter of North Korea is that we have almost no reliable first-hand information about what its government is really up to. While we can easily access images of North Korea’s gulag system and military infrastructure through Google Earth, the heads of the regime remain masters of secrecy. For instance, it took U.S. intelligence 48 hours to realize that Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, had died.
This is what experts describe as the hard business of getting to know your enemy.
And this is at least part of the explanation for why we see so many parodies about North Korea. Victor Cha says these parodies are simply “filling the void,” and indicative of the scary reality that we simply don’t have a lot of information about what is actually happening inside North Korea.
Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan