Callam Fletcher

Is Kim Jong-un Rational?

May 29, 2018 / ZURICH
North Korea Jang Jin-sung Kim Jong-il Kim Jong-un Trump-Kim Summit Supreme Leader Nuclear Missiles Right to self-determination Strategic dialogue

After spending a day with Jang Jin-sung, the North Korean government official who defected and became a spy for the South Korean secret service, Callam Fletcher reflects on whether Kim Jong-un is in fact far more rational than Western media would like to have us believe.

Drama keeps us awake. And so does North Korea. Squeezed between the tectonic plates of Eastern communism and Western democracy, lies the elusive nation referred to as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, soon to celebrate its seventieth anniversary since being proclaimed in 1948.

As automation replaces jobs and low-cost mass production renders the artisan obsolete, the consumerist society prevails. Everything from concepts and opinions to products and services are racing towards this centre-point of “average”. In such a world, who wouldn’t want to strive for independence and a self-defined identity?

North Korea has three options:

1. Become Western
2. Become Eastern
3. Become a better version of itself

Backed by the Soviet Union, North Korea began its pursuit of totalitarian perfection in 1948. It had its own ambition, and its own vision – to gain respect on the global stage. The response was perhaps triggered by the laughing of Western leaders as the crippled “start-up” nation announces its plan to dominate in the world.

North Korea’s confidence began to flourish throughout the 1960’s during a period of industrial growth following the end of the Korean War. But to reach its goal, the North needed infrastructure and energy. So, the friendly disguise is unveiled and in 1972 North and South Korea issued a joint statement on peaceful reunification. The perceived threat was low, and energy and technology flooded in from Russia, South Korean, Japan and China. Thirteen years later, North Korea signed up to the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which barred the country from producing nuclear weapons. In 1991, North Korea joined the UN, further squashing any unfounded fears.

It was with every intent that the disguise was eventually dropped, unveiling a stark reality for Western leaders. It is October 2002 when Japan and South Korea learn that North Korea is in fact running a secret uranium-based nuclear programme. Shortly thereafter, UN inspectors are expelled, withdrawal is announced from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and, like an excited teenager with a brand-new toy, Pyongyang begins testing its nuclear weapons in plain sight.

Western leaders stop laughing and gather together for “serious” talks. North Korea has become an “out of control” threat to Western civilisation.

Behind every organisation, nation or company are people with values, beliefs and visions. Described as a shy, good student who got along well with his classmates and was a basketball fan, Kim Jong-un attended the Liebefeld Steinhölzli school in Köniz near Bern, Switzerland, throughout the 1990’s.

In a recently reported conversation, Michael Pence warned President Donald Trump that a pre-emptive attack on North Korea would result in the “most devastating conflict since WW2”. It seems more and more like a silly idea. China has its hands full, one with an unpredictable Trump, and the other with a provocative Kim. Beijing is concerned about a humanitarian crisis on its border, at a time when economic competitiveness as the world’s manufacturer is adapting to increased labour costs and the employment challenges associated with automation. With one-belt, one-road, China is preoccupied with the construction of the greatest economic corridor in human history. China simply does not need this right now.

Labour camps, torture, famine, and regular accounts of execution - North Korea has an atrocious record of violating Human Rights. It would be wrong not to pay attention, not to intervene, not to try to help these deprived people. This is certainly sufficient to label the leaders of such a regime “evil”. But is it enough to label them “crazy”? According to Jang Jin-sung, an outspoken critic of the DPRK -the nation’s history, its strategy, and its objectives remain remarkably focused and consistent given its simple and clear objective to be taken seriously.

For North Korea to produce an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile which could reliably deliver a nuclear warhead to Los Angeles is an alarming prospect. Whilst Trump has considered a pre-emptive strike, it would be perhaps wise to consider that Swiss-educated Kim Jong-un is more sensible and better-advised than Western media would have us believe. One wonders how Kim Jong-un would leverage this new-found respect as a key player on the world-stage. Perhaps acknowledgement would mean he could prioritise phase three of the plan: transforming North Korea into a prosperous nation.

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