Despite suggestions that recent UN sanctions against North Korea will bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table in 2018, U.S. and Chinese war preparations continue. China has plans to establish five refugee centers along the border, while the U.S. is positioning naval and other forces near and on the peninsula.
Hopes the UN sanctions would work to avoid war are unrealistic. While North Koreans will suffer their impact, Pyongyang’s leadership will not. Additionally, President Donald Trump just announced his disappointment that China and others are violating the sanctions — a claim China denies but satellite photographs seem to support Trump.
For many North Korea watchers, it is difficult to see any non-military solution ending Kim Jong-un’s nuclear program. However, one last non-military option might be worth trying before resorting to military force. That option plays on a weak link existing for the first time in the Kim family dynasty’s history.
All three Kim family leaders of the “Hermit Kingdom” shared the brutality gene. The current leader has proven surprisingly more brutal than either his father, Kim-Jong-il, or grandfather, Kim-Il-sung. But each employed his own unique approach to maintaining power.
With Moscow’s assistance, Kim-Il-Sung became leader of newly-formed North Korea in 1948. He maintained control by balancing two major instruments of power: the Communist Party and the military. He recognized that too much power in the hands of either was a risk to his leadership, so he learned to play the two against each other. Both knew their status turned upon Kim-Il-sung’s favor. He doled out promotions within the Party and the military at a slow pace, promotions that won their loyalty for being so hard to attain.
Kim Il-sung’s 46-year rule ended upon his 1994 death, paving the way for his son, Kim Jong-il, 63, to inherit the dictatorship. Initially feeling more affinity for the Party than the military, he shifted gears after perceiving the former failed to hold him in the same high regard in which his father was held. He turned to the military as his main instrument of power, launching a “military first” policy that gave it top priority. The military fed into this mindset, rendering great honors upon him when he visited bases. While his leadership tenure lasted a little over one-third of his father’s, Kim Jong-il promoted many more generals, making the military very top-heavy.
Life left Kim Jong-il with far fewer years than his father to brutalize his people when he died in 2011. Dictatorial inheritance allowed Kim Jong-un, 27, with questionable leadership experience, to take control. He embarked upon a campaign to instill loyalty through fear and intimidation. He, however, looked to no single governmental instrument as a foundation for power – neither the Party nor the military; nor, surprisingly, even his own family members.
By 2016’s end, Kim Jong-un had executed over 300 senior officials for reasons running from a bad attitude to disloyalty. Among family members paying the price for s0 being were his uncle, who reports initially claimed had been executed in North Korea by tossing him into a pit of wild dogs, and his half-brother, who was assassinated in Malaysia.
What kept Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il in power was their ability, for the former, to balance the instruments of power so both were beholding to him, and, for the latter, to give priority to the one instrument better positioned to ensure he stayed in power. But Kim Jong-un has proven an enigma to his inner circle. While he demands loyalty, he only sees it flowing one way. Inner circle members have no idea who next will be targeted by a leader possessing the sanity of Emperor Nero.
This is where the weak link exists. For the previous Kims, one or both North Korean instruments of power had “a dog in the fight” to ensure their leader’s survival. Now, while an inner circle member may awaken as their leader’s friend today but foe tomorrow, these instruments of power are at a loss to know whose dog is in the fight. One theory emerging is Kim Jong-un’s weak grasp on power may be what is fueling his nuclear ambitions.
Pyongyang would seem ripe for a psyop (psychological operation). Hopefully, the U.S. and South Korea are considering flooding North Korea with broadcasts, brochures dropped via drones, or whatever other means possible with a message aimed at those best positioned to act upon it. It needs to convey a warning while also issuing a caveat.
The message should forewarn of our resolve to end Pyongyang’s nuclear program by any means necessary. In doing so, those responsible for assisting Kim and brutalizing their people will also be held accountable once we forcibly remove the dictator. However, a caveat should add such military action can be avoided by a transition government, led by those around Kim, ensuring the country’s abandonment of its nuclear arms program. Doing so would then activate a U.S. and South Korea commitment to send aid and assistance to that government to further transition into becoming an instrument of power for its people.
Such a psyop campaign would either give Kim Jong-un’s inner circle serious thought about seeking to establish a transition government or, alternatively, cause the psychotic leader to launch a stepped-up campaign to eliminate circle members he believes are conspiring against him. However, this might just be the push for the inner circle to recognize there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by moving forward with Kim-lite.
Left in power, Kim presents a major threat, not only to his own people, but to the international community as well. His bravado stems, in part, from a persona sheltered at birth from the realities of human suffering and one now in which he is treated god-like, accountable to no one.
In 2002, President George W. Bush labeled Iraq, Iran and North Korea as forming an “Axis of Evil.” He was accurate in doing so. The fact that the remaining two members of that axis are conspiring against us make them an even greater threat today.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.