With concern growing over Kim Jong-un’s threats of nuclear attack, analysts are keen to contradict the view he is a madman. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Kim Jong-un might be a rational leader

Kim Jong-un poses with soldiers at North Korea’s Strategic Force Command in August.
Kim Jong-un poses with soldiers at North Korea’s Strategic Force Command in August.
Credit: Newscom / Alamy Live News

If the borders magically evaporated, and a highway drawn straight through the demilitarised zone, you could drive between Seoul and Pyongyang in a few hours. Established as a pacifying buffer at the effective, if not technical, end of the Korean War in 1953, the DMZ is a belt four kilometres wide and 250 kilometres long. Having been largely free of human habitation for nearly 65 years, it would briefly present unusually lush biodiversity as your drive took you through woods, prairies and swamps that are home to both endangered animals and landmines. 

You would also be driving between one of the world’s largest cities and one of its strangest. Seoul is home to 10 million people – or 22 million, counting its Capital Area – a megapolis comprising dense apartment blocks and the glassy, sky-scraping towers of international capital. Much of the city crumbled beneath the shells of the Korean War; today, the surviving Joseon architecture stands in modern shadows.

Pyongyang, of course, is the capital of the Hermit Kingdom. In a globalised world, it remains relatively inscrutable, a bizarre realisation of Orwell’s worst prophecies. “The thing that really struck me was the sensory deprivation,” a journalist told me after visiting. “It’s so quiet, there’s no motion – the highways are empty, there are no birds, everything is dark at night. People around the metro move in an orderly fashion, the food is entirely tasteless, you can’t touch anything.”

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a country of few resources but a deep capacity for pain; a country whose propaganda is as entrenched as its subjects’ starvation. There is more state misinformation than food, more rhetoric than electricity, but one helps obviate the other. It is also intensely independent. “China’s influence on North Korea is overstated,” Dr Andray Abrahamian tells me from Jeju Island, South Korea. Abrahamian is a visiting fellow at the Jeju Peace Institute, and a scholar who has made many trips to North Korea. “They do have a mutual defence treaty, but North Korea has always been obstinately independent. It’s part of their political and cultural identity.”

For decades, North Korea’s command economy has been aggressively bent towards developing its military. It was the myopic preoccupation of its late leader Kim Jong-il, who developed one of the world’s largest standing armies. Today, North Korea’s number of service troops exceeds one million – with millions more in reserve. And while the country developed covert methods for acquiring nuclear technology, it has long been overt in its nuclear ambition. It has become a national rallying point, a fact reflected in 2012, when the DPRK constitution was amended to include its desire to be a nuclear-armed nation.

So for decades, one of the world’s strangest cities has held one of the world’s largest hostage. Arrayed behind North Korea’s granite mountains is an awesome line of artillery. It points southwards. For decades, the North’s development of nuclear weapons has been helped by its possession of conventional ones – Seoul’s density, and its proximity to this arsenal, makes for sobering vulnerability. The hypothetical highway drive could be done in hours – North Korean artillery would cover the distance in minutes.

Dr Daniel Pinkston is a lecturer in international relations at Troy University, Alabama, and the former Northeast Asia deputy project director of the International Crisis Group in Seoul. He was also a Korean linguist in the United States Air Force, and has written extensively about North Korea’s weapon program. While Kim Jung-un has promised to engulf Seoul in a “sea of fire” if provoked, Pinkston believes we are at risk of overstating the threat to South Korea’s civilians.

“People often assume that North Korean artillery would be aimed at civilians,” Pinkston told me from Seoul. “In a conflict, the KPA [Korean People’s Army] would be most concerned about military facilities, command and control infrastructure, the power grid, communications facilities, logistics nodes – such as ports, airports, and rail networks – and government buildings and complexes.

“They are quite accurate with their artillery, and, of course, there would be a lot of collateral damage in an artillery attack. However, it makes no sense for the KPA to aim its artillery at civilian neighbourhoods simply to impose mass casualties of non-combatants. That would not be consistent with their military objectives and their nationalist narrative. Their artillery positions would immediately be subject to intense counter-fire, so I don’t see them wasting rounds on civilian neighbourhoods. They would need to get their rounds off before being hit by counter-fire. I don’t mean to dismiss the amount of damage to non-combatants, but I think most people have a misconception of North Korean objectives and how the KPA would use its artillery in a conflict.”

Alarmingly, that South Korean infrastructure includes more than 20 nuclear reactors.


After North Korea’s long-range missile tests in June, US President Donald Trump improvised America’s condemnation from his golf course. “North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States,” the president told reporters. “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.”

As alarming to the public as that phrase may have been, it was its glib spontaneity that concerned the Pentagon. Trump conducts much foreign policy via impetuous burps, often on Twitter, and most are dangerously removed from historical understanding and the advice of his government. But he isn’t alone in reminding North Korea of America’s power. In April last year, then president Barack Obama said on the Charlie Rose program: “We could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals. But aside from the humanitarian costs of that, they are right next door to our vital ally, Republic of Korea.”

It was a reminder to Kim that the US was aware of his power, but if that power were expressed it would result in the extinction of his regime. Obama wasn’t ignorant of the long alliance between the US and South Korea, one formalised in treaties that prevent the latter from developing nuclear weapons but solemnly oblige the former to protect it. Nor was he ignorant of the shadow cast over Seoul by the North’s artillery, and the fact that even without nuclear weapons the DPRK could, if it so chose, swiftly devastate the city.


You can’t choose your neighbours. Over the centuries, South Korea has variously been invaded, enslaved and slaughtered by Japan, China and North Korea. When I moved to South Korea in 2003, I sensed, perhaps unfairly, an inferiority complex wrought from this historical grievance. At the time, North Korea was threatening the South, so much so that my father counselled against my moving there, but when I arrived most locals I spoke to were indifferent to the North’s bellicosity. Instead, they spoke, unprompted, about the barbarism of the Japanese. 

In 2003, despite its size and modernity, Seoul felt insular and homogenous. This feeling increased when you left the capital for the provinces. To inquire about the threat of North Korea caused bemusement; the threat was insignificant, as common as air. What was interesting was a Westerner’s concern for them. Today, it seems much the same. “People here are so sanguine in moments of crisis,” Andray Abrahamian tells me. “In the States there is much more panic. They’re obviously less informed of the long history of the Korean peninsula. In Seoul, perhaps, it’s like living in San Francisco with the threat of earthquakes – you never think you’re going to live through the big one, like 1906.”    

In 2003, it seemed to me that there was more to this nonchalance than resignation. There was fondness. Nostalgia. When I asked Koreans about the North, in soju bars and BBQ restaurants, I heard melancholic sympathy for them. They were cousins, estranged by the unnatural cleaving of the peninsula in ’53. Far from being fearful, they sought reunification.

The polling agreed. In 1994, Seoul National University released research suggesting that 92 per cent of South Koreans thought reunification “necessary”, though this had fallen to 64 per cent by 2007. Early this century the vast majority of South Koreans perceived Japan as an enemy, rather than the North.

But South Korean attitudes have changed significantly. A 2015 Asia Public Opinion report noted that since 2010 “youth detachment from North Korea” was “perhaps the most important recurring theme in public opinion data”. A generational gap was emerging, accelerated by a DPRK torpedo attack on a South Korean navy ship in 2010, which killed 46 sailors. This strengthened the alliance between South Korea and the US, as a younger generation of South Koreans became far more conservative in their attitudes on foreign policy.

The shift was a great boon to the US alliance, but regardless the partnership is jeopardised by Trump’s improvised statements. A recurring theme among the various academics and diplomats I spoke with this week was astonishment at Trump’s inflammatory remarks. Specifically, they referred to a tweet the US president sent this week following North Korea’s sixth – and by far its largest – nuclear test: “South Korea is finding, as I have told them, that their talk of appeasement with North Korea will not work, they only understand one thing!”

“The treaties and alliances are important for all the countries involved,” Daniel Pinkston says. “Maintaining close co-operation among the allies is critical for regional security and stability. Trump has made several unforced errors that are regrettable. For those who actually have to manage the alliances and maintain the deterrence posture, such as Pacific Command Commander Admiral Harris and United States Forces Korea Commander General Brookes, Trump has been making their jobs much more difficult. It seems much of the rhetoric coming from the White House is aimed at the US domestic audience, otherwise it makes no sense at the international level. In fact, it has been counterproductive.”

Abrahamian was even more pointed. “Kim’s provocations are in part designed to test these alliances,” he told me. “There’s some fracture now, following Trump’s statements in the past month, but also as far back as the campaign. It’s precisely what Kim Jong-un wants. It’s a gift to him.

“Now, the military relationship [between the US and South Korea] is strong. It’s a 70-year partnership, and it hums along. They’re on the same page. And, for now, South Korean attitudes to the US largely seem positive. But public opinion could really change. Trump has threatened to pull out of a free-trade agreement with South Korea. It’s possible that the day comes when they say, ‘The US imperils our security, and economically they don’t have our back.’ ”

Trump seems to be playing fast and loose with a long, vital and solemn partnership.


There’s a litany of popular descriptors for the North Korean leader: lunatic, unstable, reckless, brutal. Trump has called him a “madman” and our prime minister recently described him as “evil”. But these descriptions deviate from close observers to whom I’ve spoken. It is true that Kim Jong-un murders siblings, and rules a country of wicked dysfunction. It is also true that, only recently, he fired a missile over Japan, threatened a US territory with annihilation, and tested what appears to be a hydrogen bomb. But none of this, experts say, means he’s unstable. Brutality and bellicosity do not preclude rationality. “You don’t become the leader of North Korea and hold on to the positions of KWP [Korean Workers’ Party] chairman, EPB [Economic Planning Board] chairman, and KPA Supreme Commander if you are not rational,” Pinkston says. “That person must be hyper-rational and conduct cost–benefit calculations every day to maintain his dictatorship. It’s surprising that people still engage in this conversation regarding Kim’s rationality or irrationality.”

Abrahamian told me that, because of Kim Jong-un’s age when he replaced his late father – Kim was in his 20s when he became supreme leader, but his precise birthdate is unclear – there’s a popular but erroneous assumption that he is hopelessly immature. “He came on the scene quickly,” Abrahamian tells me. “He’s young, but I don’t think he came in as callow as some think. And Kim is as rational an actor as any of them. I would take a minute to debunk the idea that he’s a madman. He’s not – it’s a dangerous myth. Unlike his father, he came in and associated himself with economic development. It was a break from his father, who was all about military development. Kim came in and allowed the market to flourish more than his father. He enacted reforms to make it less of a command economy. He permitted more people to live abroad and run companies. But the military is still a major stakeholder in North Korean politics, and he’s kept them happy. Nuclear testing has obviously accelerated. Kim formalised his goal of nuclear and economic development, calling it ‘byongjin’, or parallel development.

“But he recognises that the economy can’t develop for all of the overlapping international sanctions. It asks the question: after the acquisition of nuclear technology, does their behaviour change? It might. Or they may feel more emboldened, and brinksmanship increases so that they might seek greater concessions. My sense – my hope – is that he turns to the economy.”


This week, the US completed its installation of its Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence, a missile defence system installed on an abandoned golf course 270 kilometres south of Seoul. Equipped with powerful radar, its installation was bitterly opposed by China, alarmed by the prospect that the system would be used to surveil them. Meanwhile, a US-led proposal to the United Nations Security Council for a global embargo on oil supplies to North Korea – a sanction that could swiftly ruin the country – was dismissed out of hand by Russia, who possess veto power on the council. Hypothetically removing Russia’s opposition, it is highly unlikely that China, which supplies the rogue state with the majority of its oil, would support the sanction either.

This week, Trump called Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to discuss the situation. Turnbull described the conversation as “warm”. On Thursday, Turnbull urged the 200,000 Australians living in South Korea, Japan and China to register with the Department of Foreign Affairs’ Smart Traveller website. “The risk of war is greater than it’s been since the end of the Korean War,” Turnbull told Channel Nine’s Today program. “The threatening conduct of Kim Jong-un is becoming more intense all the time. Having said that, I remain confident the global community will put more economic pressure on North Korea and that will bring the regime to its senses.”

What was put to me this week is that North Korea’s actions aren’t the result of abandoned sense, however. Its behaviour is dangerous but calculated. “Each US administration since George W. Bush’s has said that denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula is the goal,” Abrahamian told me. “But very few people I speak to privately think that will ever happen. They won’t give up their weapons. There is no incentive large enough for them to do so. They have enshrined this ambition in their constitution. But we have a US administration now even less prepared than previous ones. It’s hard to predict what Trump will do.”

Pinkston advises caution: “There is good reporting, and the media need to inform the public, so they should pay serious attention to this issue. That said, there also is a lot of hysteria that you might call ‘irresponsible reporting’. I think deterrence in North-East Asia is quite robust and all actors are constrained from taking unilateral military action to change the status quo. That applies to both North Korea and the US. When someone considers the lethal capabilities, there is sufficient reason to be concerned, but no reason to panic.

“I think [North Korea] will be disappointed to find that no one has been able to use their nuclear weapons for compellence, and that the only real utility is in their deterrent value, which paradoxically means they are only useful if you do not use them. However, many analysts are concerned about the so-called stability–instability paradox, whereby nuclear capabilities might cause the leadership to believe they can take greater risks in the conventional realm and can execute conventional attacks against adversaries who will be reluctant to retaliate because of escalation fears. This fear has led the [South Korean] Moon government to increase the defence budget and seek the acquisition of capabilities to respond appropriately to a range of possible NK conventional attacks.”

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have never been secret. But the swiftness of their development of nuclear warheads and intercontinental ballistic missiles has surprised many. “This is a two-decade-long nuclear crisis,” Abrahamian reminds me. “They’ve explicitly communicated their goals,” he says. “The US strategic goals are less clear.”

And on that, the world waits.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 9, 2017 as "It’s possible this man isn’t crazy".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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