Kim Jong Un has shown himself to be as formidable an opponent as his grandfather Kim Il Sung was, braving international sanctions in order to ensure the creation of a nuclear and missile deterrent of sufficient sophistication to keep the US from launching a pre-emptive attack. The grandson is committed to the unification of the Korean peninsula.
However, while the grandfather launched a war on the South, Kim Jong Un does not intend to begin a conflict, least of all with South Korea, unless a situation gets created which makes it certain to the leadership core of the DPRK that an attack by the US and Japan is imminent. In such an eventuality, steps are being taken to ensure that heavy blows fall on Japan and those parts of the US as will be reachable by North Korean weapons platforms.
More than Washington, it is Tokyo that is considered by Pyongyang as being “the foe of the progress of the Korean people”, which is why Kim (and presumably his counterparts across the 38th parallel) wants that day to be brought forward when the combined economy and geopolitical heft of the Korean peninsula moves ahead of that of Japan.
Born into absolutist privilege, Kim Jong Un has the self-confidence of an individual used to getting his own way, which is why he has been pushing forward the boundaries of strategic behaviour, even into policy terrain formerly regarded as too risky to be attempted. However, while the youngest Marshal of the DPRK military (most of the others are double and more his age) has studied with care the post-1945 tension-suffused history of the state he controls, it is another Asian leader who seems to have been the inspiration for some of his initiatives.
This is Vietnamese legend Ho Chi Minh, who defeated France and later the US on the battlefield. Focusing on the example set by Ho makes sense for Kim, because of the disproportion between the conventional warfare capacities of the DPRK and the US-South Korea alliance. Successive regimes in Seoul have fashioned a military machine that can take on the North in a conventional conflict, just as the divisions of the USSR could have made short work of the men and materiel of NATO that were facing them.
This is why the US and its European partners placed their reliance on nuclear weapons and delivery systems to inhibit Moscow from launching even a limited conflict designed to take over the whole of Berlin, which could thereby eliminate the running sore in the flank of East Germany that eventually led to its 1989 meltdown. Given the fact that Moscow would have had (and still retains) the means to eliminate human life on the planet if attacked with nuclear weapons, the probability that the US, the UK and France would have responded with a nuclear attack on a USSR takeover of West Berlin was zero, but neither Khruschev nor Brezhnev was daring enough to take the risk. In Vietnam, during the nearly two decades of conflict with the US, unlike when he was fighting the French, Ho Chi Minh sought to avoid conventional exchanges with US forces, relying instead on unconventional warfare. Hanoi’s success may explain why Kim has spent the past six years building up secret nonconventional capabilities in Japan and South Korea, and is engaged in attempting to fashion a similar network in North America. As happened during the Vietnam War, North Korea has been working on a web of alternative pathways towards the securing of money and strategic materiel, even as conventional paths are being closed down by UNSC sanctions.
Ho was a communist in the reformist mould of Deng Xiaoping, as witness the pragmatism the Vietnamese Communist Party has displayed in economic policy once the country got unified with the departure of US forces. Vietnam is ruled by the ideological successors to Ho, a leader concerned less by the arcana found in communist classics than by the task of bringing his people out of poverty. This is precisely the attitude of Kim Jong Un, who has been focused on the differential living standards between south and north, and has been implementing market reforms on a scale unprecedented in his country even during the Sunshine Policy decade. Had Park Guen-hye, President Moon’s predecessor, moved away from her exceptionally harsh policies towards Pyongyang and instead sought greater linkages and access towards the north, Kim Jong Un would have reciprocated far more vigorously than his father did to the efforts by then South Korean Head of State, Kim Dae Jung at ensuring a stable peace between the two sides.
It needs to be pointed out that President Park’s tough line was met by an expansion of the DPRK’s missile and nuclear capabilities at an unprecedented speed. The diplomatic reachout by Kim via his charming sister in Pyeongchang, as well as the offer to meet with President Donald Trump, are other ways in which Ho Chi Minh’s tactics are being sought to be emulated.
Ho was tireless in seeking to increase anti-war sentiment in the US, meeting with peaceniks from the US and Europe and making gestures of conciliation, while (entirely correctly) portraying his nation as a small and impoverished country being battered by the globe’s pre-dominant power. Kim clearly intends through his peace gestures to boost the number and influence of those in the US who regard a pre-emptive attack on North Korea to be potentially much too expensive in human lives to be attempted. There will certainly be another DPRK nuclear test and missile launch.
This next missile launch and nuclear test from North Korea is likely to be of such potency that even those clamouring for war in Washington may sheathe plans for a pre-emptive attack and learn to live with a nuclear North Korea. What will not be on offer by Kim is a fullscope Iraq, Libya or even (a partial) Syria-style surrender of the considerable WMD assets built up by the DPRK. A meeting between Trump and Kim may help opinion in the US to dissipate the clouds of war, but will not end the nuclear and missile capability of North Korea.