ATLANTA — North Korea stands accused of sinking a South Korean warship without provocation, killing 46 of its crew. So just what was Kim Jong Il thinking in what must have been a deliberate move to enrage the South and the international community?
The surprise attack probably was intended partly to retaliate for past naval skirmishes in which the South’s navy had gotten the better of the North’s. In the midst of preparations to elevate one of his sons as successor, the aging and sickly ruler needed to show strength and play to the nationalistic pride and xenophobia of his subjects.
There’s also the suspicion Kim was pursuing a scheme to re-draw the long-disputed maritime border by intimidating the South Koreans. Defectors say that South Koreans’ fear of another Korean War is considerably greater than that of North Koreans, who have much less to lose.
In the end, comprehension requires knowing Kim’s mind. Here are five important aspects of his thinking.
1. He’s crazy — like a fox
One CIA consultant psychiatrist has argued that Kim displays “malignant narcissism,” a mental illness. Being described abroad as a madman is a positive to the extent it makes him appear more frightening to his enemies. However, the most careful Kim-watchers see that calculations of rational self-interest guide his actions. That’s mainly the self-interest of himself and his family, which he unashamedly elevates above the interests of his long-suffering subjects.
2. It’s not the economy, stupid
Kim is aware that capitalism provides incentives for economic growth and that his country’s state-run economy has failed. He doesn’t dare admit this publicly because his subjects would then see that they would be better off under a system like South Korea’s, and that all their sacrifices to preserve the separate Northern regime had gone for naught. Head of propaganda before his elevation to top leader, movie buff Kim is a showman at heart. When it comes to providing incentives for desired behavior, he nearly always comes down on the side of circuses, not bread. His chief public relations concern is impressing North Koreans — particularly the military men who shore up his regime. He cares little for the opinions of the rest of the world. Economic sanctions aren’t of great concern to him unless they impact his personal finances — at which point he does care, very much.
3. In his nightmares: a bloody end to the dynasty
Kim’s great fear is that, like Romanian rulers Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu, he and his family will die at the hands of an enraged populace if the people ever learn of and focus fully on the real reasons for their poverty and hunger. He is determined to continue insulating his people from outside news and ideas. The South’s retaliatory decision this week to resume propaganda warfare via broadcasts and balloon drops elicited a prompt threat from Pyongyang to shoot at the facilities involved.
4. He’s an unapologetic militarist
With his “military first policy,” Kim has put all his eggs in the basket of military confrontation. He needs and wants constant conflict with external enemies to keep his subjects from focusing their disapproval on him and his rule. His existence on the edge takes a toll on his nerves, and he would much prefer to wipe out South Korea once and for all and place his family in secure charge of the entire peninsula if he could do it. That opportunity has yet to present itself. In the meantime he prepares by concentrating on smaller victories — turning North Korea into a nuclear power, for one.
5. He is determined not to accept defeat
Would Kim, if he felt cornered, choose an Armageddon exit, attempting to use his small but growing arsenal of nuclear bombs against cities in South Korea, Japan, the United States? There’s a significant chance he would. His late father, President Kim Il Sung, promoted him to the top military rank of marshal in 1992. North Korean soldiers have been told that, shortly afterward, those two and two other top officials had a conversation in which the elder Kim asked what would happen if war broke out and the North lost. “If we lose, I will destroy the world,” Kim Jong Il replied. His father applauded those sentiments, saying, “You’re definitely talking the way a marshal should talk.”
Bradley K. Martin is the author of "Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty."