Grabbing the attention of the world is North Korea’s strong suit. Its leader, the 33-year-old Kim Jong-un, rivals Donald Trump in his appetite for international approval and his intolerance of criticism, from any quarter.
In the last few days he has used two headline-dominating events – a ballistic missile launch and the dramatic alleged assassination of his half-brother Kim Jong-nam – to assert his personal authority and to demonstrate his country’s ability to challenge the security of those individuals or countries that oppose him.
What do the latest provocations tell us about the stability of the regime and the options for the international community in limiting the North’s disruptive influence?
The 12 February Pukgusong-2 missile launch, while not a strategic game changer, represents a significant improvement in Pyongyang’s military capabilities. A solid-fuel rocket, it can be launched in minutes, undercutting the ability of neighbouring countries to pre-emptively defend themselves against an attack.
Although Kim bragged, as recently as last month, that the country is on the point of launching an ICBM, the missile reportedly has a limited range of 1,200km – not enough to strike at the continental United States. But, this is at best partial comfort given the progressive improvement in the North’s capabilities and Kim’s resolve to push ahead aggressively with his military modernisation campaign.
The worry is that in a matter of a year or two, five at the most, Pyongyang may be able to credibly target a nuclear-armed missile at South Korea, Japan and US territory, whether in Guam, Hawaii, Alaska, or as far afield as California.
Missile launches and the two nuclear tests of 2016 are an easy and immediate way of demonstrating the strength of the regime, and help to bolster Kim’s legitimacy in the eyes of his public, particularly among Pyongyang residents, who are receptive to the image of a technically advanced and militarily increasingly self-confident North Korea.
The benefits of a suspected targeted assassination are less clearcut when it comes to enhancing Kim’s political authority at home. Although no charges have yet been brought against the three people arrested over his killing, and North Korea has made no statement on his Kim Jong-nam’s death, South Korea’s intelligence agency had told lawmakers in the past that there was a “standing order” from the North Korea leader for Kim Jong-nam’s assassination, and that there had been a previous failed attempt. Showing the power and reach of the North’s security apparatus may help to instil fear in the minds of potential opponents of Kim or those minded to pursue a better life overseas – a valuable benefit to the regime given recent high-profile defections, including that of Thae Yong-ho, the former deputy ambassador to the UK, in August 2016.
However, fear is a blunt instrument, and the recent spate of executions and political purges (reportedly Kim has killed upwards of 360 officials since assuming power in December 2011) may be as much a sign of his political weakness and vulnerability rather than proof of unchallenged authority.
Moreover, in a society where a residue of Confucian respect for family loyalty and kinship still applies, the suspected contract-style killing of the leader’s half-brother may (much like the very public humiliation and execution of Jang Song-taek, Kim’s uncle in 2013) discredit and undermine (albeit privately) the leader in the eyes of his people.
For the Trump administration, combating the North Korean threat is an urgent priority. So far, however, Washington’s response has not inspired confidence. The public image of an improvised policy huddle between US and Japanese officials at Trump’s Mar-a-Largo dinner with Prime Minister Abe, in response to the missile launch, has underscored the impression of chaotic and ad hoc decision-making and the absence of knowledgeable national security staff within the White House – an image amplified by the surprise resignation of General Michael Flynn as Trump’s National Security Adviser. The President must get a grip quickly and demonstrate that he has a coherent strategy for confronting the North.
Some in Washington are calling for a new round of economic sanctions, including “secondary sanctions” targeting third-parties (most notably Chinese banks), as a means of starving the regime and people close to Kim of the hard currency that funds their sometimes lavish and privileged lifestyles. However, Beijing would almost certainly push back sharply against such an approach and Trump would be unwise to upset ties with China just after mending fences in the wake of his early provocative remarks over Taiwan.
Inside the daily life in North Korea
Inside the daily life in North Korea
People reading a newspaper at the metro station
Thoughts of the leaders on the tram. They have about a dozen of these on every tram, all with different thoughts
Young people training for a big upcoming festival
People at the Pyongyang's annual marathon
Many stars on one of the trolleys in Pyongyang
An intimidating poster in a primary school in North Korea.
Solar panels installed on a street lamp.
A poster on the window next to one of the venues we visited in Pyongyang
Kids playing football next to the Arch of Triumph. After a while tourists were allowed to join, so some of us did
Class in an educational center in Pyongyang (where people over 17 years old can attend any classes they choose after school, for free)
People waving at me during the Pyongyang marathon
People having a great time dancing at a public park
A metro driver in a metro station in Pyongyang
Fireworks to mark the birthday of the Eternal President Kim Il Sung on our last night in Pyongyang
My wonderful tour guide at a public park
One of the parks in Pyongyang
A person rowing some boats for the day at a river in Pyongyang
The National War Museum
Public park in Pyongyang
More targeted measures might be used to restrict the economic opportunities for the 50,000 or so North Korean labourers working overseas, again to restrict financial flows back to Pyongyang. Washington might also consider focusing more aggressively on the North’s human rights abuses by re-listing the North as a State Sponsor of Terror, a designation that was lifted in 2008 when the Bush administration was seeking to broker a nuclear deal with the DPRK. Such a re-listing would likely be warmly welcomed by Japan, where both the government and public opinion have long battled, unsuccessfully, to resolve the fate of Japanese citizens abducted by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s.
Above all, the US needs to work with international partners, in the United Nations and regionally, to develop a coordinated approach. Alongside China, which, as the provider of considerable economic aid to the North, has the potential to exert pressure on Kim, South Korea is a key actor. Yet, the political deadlock in Seoul over the impeachment of an embattled President Park is unlikely to be resolved rapidly, and at some point this year we can expect a new presidential election in which a progressive politician (precisely who at the moment is unclear) is likely to be victorious.
The future ROK president is expected to push for renewed talks with the North and a reinvigorated inter-Korean dialogue. This opens the door for a radical reset of Washington’s North Korea policy and a comprehensive set of talks on diplomatic recognition and a peace treaty ending the Korean War, in return for a possible freeze of the North’s nuclear and missile programme.
Critics will label this as unrealistic and tantamount to appeasement, but for a President Trump who wishes to distance himself from his predecessor’s policy of “strategic patience”, a fresh start may prove appealing. Such an approach will need to be delicately calibrated, involving the selective and carefully timed combination of “pressure and dialogue” (an approach first articulated by Prime Minister Abe). If successful, this could not only offset the North’s provocations and enhance regional security, but also help dispel the image of policy disorder and bureaucratic confusion in a White House that, for now a least, seems to be the victim rather than the master of strategic events.
John Nilsson-Wright is a senior research fellow with the Asia Programme at Chatham House, and a senior university lecturer in Japanese Politics and International Relations at Cambridge University, as well as an official fellow of Darwin College, Cambridge