In lieu of a North Korean defector’s recent statements and the collapse of the North’s primary nuclear testing site, my assessment of the North Korea crisis deserves additional commentary.
Using game theory I explained the objective of Kim’s quest for ICBMs has always been to deter America from intervening against him (and not for the sake using them in a suicidal nuclear war with the United States) and to domestically reinforce regime credibility –
At this stage the US and Kim are very close war. To understand why we look at each side’s goals and risk & reward incentive structures.
Kim does not want a war. If he wanted one he would have already used his existing arsenal to start it. Kim sees an ICBM as a deterrent that minimizes the risk his hostile actions invite American attacks by increasing the risk of retaliation for America. Shielded by the deterrent power of future ICBMs Kim can then afford to act more aggressively than ever before even if he never intends to commit suicide by launching a preemptive nuclear attack against America: ICBMs open opportunities for nuclear blackmail against the US, Japan and South Korea in exchange for military and economic concessions and agreements to look the other way at the North’s black market criminal activities.
I have also argued on game theory grounds the more the crisis escalates, the less likely Kim would be to back down for fear of giving an impression of weakness that would invite a military coup –
…a new possibility comes into play: Kim’s generals are incentivized to mount a coup (even if Kim at this point has backed himself too far into a corner to back down) the more likely war becomes.
Previously, North Korean generals were hugely dissuaded from mounting a coup against the ruling dynasty by a prisoner’s dilemma – even if their best collective option was to cooperate and plot an overthrow, the great individual risks and uncertainty to each general of getting caught (How would a sincere plotter know there are no informants within the small circle of coup plotters? How would a sincere plotter know another sincere plotter wouldn’t be caught or change their mind at a key moment?) greatly discouraged such cooperation.
Now that they face a real chance of a nuclear war that will destroy them the risk of organizing a coup becomes more less risky, though by no means a statistical certainty.
My analysis was confirmed by recent statements made by a former North Korean diplomat who defected, Thae Yong Ho.
According to him, the ICBM program is meant primarily to deter America from ever attacking North Korea –
Kim also set forth a policy focused on achieving simultaneous development of the country’s weapons programs and the economy, a way to achieve visible results without engaging in risky economic reforms.
When Kim first took power, he toured the military units along the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). “What he learned was (there was a) lack of preparedness for a possible war and (a lack of) high spirit, corruption, and obsolete conventional weapons,” Thae revealed, explaining that the nuclear and ballistic missile programs served as motivators for an unenthusiastic army. Thae suggested that an idle army is dangerous, exposing Kim to the threat of a military coup.
More importantly, though, Kim watched what happened in Libya, recognizing the risk of humanitarian intervention in the North Korean regime. He observed closely the Arab Spring incidents, as well as the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. “This had a strong influence on Kim Jong Un,” Thae suggested.
If there were an uprising in North Korea, “there is no doubt that Kim Jong Un would stamp it out mercilessly with his forces, with his tanks,” but that could trigger a response from the U.S. and South Korea. “If Kim is equipped with ICBM tipped with nuclear (warheads) then he can prevent that kind of humanitarian intervention,” Thae explained.
Thae also confirmed my point that Kim’s policies of instilling great fear into his own commanders in order to ward off a coup is deeply dependent on the success of his ICBM program. The necessity of completing an ICBM program to Kim’s strategy for regime survival makes it very unlikely Kim will agree to nuclear disarmament since he equates disarmament with the destruction of his regime, either at the hands of his generals or by the American military.
Kim learned quickly that while he held the title of leader, many did not see him as the true head of the North Korean state. This realization, coupled with a budding paranoia and distrust, led to a serious change in the young dictator’s political thinking. He purged officials who were considered a threat, including members of his own family, and those that knew and leaked the details of his family history. Kim also targeted officials who lacked enthusiasm for the country’s future.
“He learned that whenever he convened a meeting … maybe 80 or 90 percent of the audience would sleep. So he learned that there was no enthusiasm – even in the elite group – on policy discussions.” Kim reportedly had a senior official executed last year for dozing off during a meeting.
Thae described the purges, which were brutal, as “unprecedented” in North Korean history.
The North Korean leader solidified his rule through a “reign of terror,” as Thae described it. The weapons program is a sign of strength for the regime.
The only item I find surprising is that as recently as 2016 there were still senior North Korean officials willing to nap during Kim’s meetings. This just proves it is nearly impossible for millenials to be taken seriously, even when the millenial in question is a 32 year old dictator who routinely assassinates his own family members while threatening to plunge Northeast Asia into a nuclear winter.
The last bit of news is no less important.
During the collapse of North Korea’s primary nuclear testing site, 200 North Korean workers were killed. The site remains a danger because if more of the now-destabilized mountain collapses radiation leaking from the site would spread across Northeast Asia.
It may be the threat of radioactive contamination poisoning Beijing’s already toxic-enough air that prompted China to further tighten its sanctions on North Korea.
The broader implication of this shift is that China may now be reassessing its risk-reward assumptions about the benefits of keeping North Korea as a balance to American power and the risk of further nuclear tests or war causing even greater environmental damage around China’s borders.
If the benefits of supporting North Korea are becoming outweighed by the risks, expect China to shift further against Kim.