News brings word that the North Koreans finally had a successful missile test, launching what some think was an ICBM, 600 miles into the sea. As is always the case with these stories, the news will be mostly wrong and the “experts” will be saying whatever pays them the most money. All that is known is that it was their most successful missile test to this point. Whether it means more is hard to know, but it could be big.
The North Koreans seem to think it is a big deal. They wheeled out a famous granny to announce the news on state TV. Professional North Korea watchers put a lot of emphasis on this sort of symbolism, but it could simply be counter-signalling. The Norks know the habits of the US media better than Americans, so you can be sure they do things like this, knowing it will trigger a predictable response from the so-called experts in the media.
Whatever the real internal thinking in Pyongyang, they are making an effort to let the world know it was a big breakthrough and they are ebullient about it. National pride is to be expected, but in the context of North Korea, their boasting is assumed to be something more than just a little flag waving. The question no one can answer is whether the boasting is for internal consumption or directed at their neighbors in Asia, including the US.
It would be good news if the Norks were simply poking a finger in the eye of the US and China by continuing on with a pointless missile program. That’s a manageable problem as it would suggest the regime is stable and coherent. There is no good result for the regime in a war with the US. If the Norks are sane and stable, then they will understand this and eventually settle for some sort of cash payment to settle down and play nice for a while.
On the other hand, if this act is aimed at internal elements, then it could suggest the regime is not stable or not acting rationally. No one really knows if Kim Jong-un is mentally stable. Many of the things he has done can be interpreted as either the result of immaturity or insanity. It is rare for a family dynasty to make it past two generations before producing a lunatic or a loser. This Kim was not the first option, so no one knows.
One indication that things may not be good inside the regime is the death of the American student, Otto Warmbier. The kid was either killed on purpose or killed by accident. If it was on purpose, it was done in such a ham-handed way to suggest the shot callers are either amateurs or careless. If it was an accident, it could mean the regime is not in full control of the state apparatus. Kim’s old man would not have made this sort of mistake.
The prior Kim would have had the show trial, but with an eye on using the hostage as a bargaining chip. A nice Jewish boy from a small town is a very good bargaining chip. In prior cases, the regime would grab a US citizen of Korean decent and then release them in a few months. The whole point of the game was usually to get someone back we had grabbed as a spy or that the South Koreans were holding for espionage.
The Warmbier case was bungled from the start and then was bungled further when they killed him in prison. No one believes it was an accident. The US is downplaying the obvious, but Trump now has a bloody shirt to wave around if things get ugly and he decides to pre-emptively attack the Norks. As Derb pointed out the other day, the US cannot tolerate anyone killing our people. Otto Warmbier must be avenged.
This is a massive blunder by the Norks, and coupled with his missile tests, it strongly suggests that either Kim is a nut or he is reckless. If he is a modern day Caligula, then he will not get better at diplomacy. He will get more provocative and unstable and eventually do something that requires action from the US. Imagine a missile test where it lands on Japan or Taiwan. That’s not too far fetched even under ideal conditions.
There is a worse possibility. The killing of Warmbier could be the result of intrigue and turmoil within the regime. These provocative tests are part of an effort by the Kim faction to assert authority over the other factions. Authoritarian regimes are always subject to factionalism and palace intrigue. Strong rulers have subtle ways of dealing with trouble makers, while weak rulers rely of ostentatious displays to intimidate threats.
The good news is that unlike the Middle East, the US has had eyes and ears on the Norks for a long time. In all probability, we have been able to monitor their internal communications for decades. There’s also the fact that the Chinese have an interest in maintaining peace on their border and keeping on good terms with Trump. As much as the swells like to call Trump an oaf, his saber rattling over trade is a great lever in this case.
There’s also the fact that Trump is not surrounded by warmongers looking for a reason to pick a fight. The provocations by the North Koreans can be ignored for now, but also dealt with by more subtle means. The Norks need access to the global banking system and that’s controlled by the US. It’s hard to sell weapons and drugs when you have to do all your dealings in cash. The Bush administration figured this out 20 years ago.
Even so, having a nuclear armed lunatic is never a good result. Even if Kim is not an Asian Caligula, general instability can be very dangerous. Regardless of the cause, the Warmbier case strongly suggests that the current regime in North Korea lacks the professionalism and skill of prior regimes. If they can bungle a simple job like grabbing a hostage and then negotiating his release, they can bungle anything.