I’ll confess that at this point, I’m not entirely sure what Pyongyang is thinking.
There’s always been this kind of tacit understanding that the regime in North Korea is “entitled” (if you want to call it that) to a little bombast here and there. They’re even allowed to get away with a missile launch (or 75 in the case on Kim Jong-Un), a nuclear test once in a while, and rampant human rights abuses.
Why? Because this is a hermit state. North Koreans are insulated from the outside world and the legitimacy of the regime depends entirely on Kim and his ancestors perpetuating a ridiculous narrative about an eternal struggle between Washington and Pyongyang. To be sure, the people of the North don’t think it’s ridiculous because (bless their hearts) they don’t know any better. Here’s a pretty good description of the dynamic from Stratfor:
North Korea has many reasons to mount a credible retaliation to any action taken against it, not only to maintain the appearance of a powerful actor on the global stage but also to ensure domestic stability. A weak response from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s administration could undermine its legitimacy among the country’s public or perhaps prompt a palace coup.
Why does anyone care if Kim’s legitimacy is undermined or if there’s a “palace coup”? Well, because then there’d be a power vacuum on China’s border. And Beijing doesn’t like the idea of that. So if Pyongyang needs to produce some absurd propaganda (see their latest video that depicts an imaginary war with the US), fire a harmless missile into the Sea of Japan, or execute someone with an anti-aircraft gun to maintain the status quo, then so be it.
But under Kim Jong-Un, the regime seems to have lost its grip on reality completely. It’s one thing to (unsuccessfully) fire a missile to (belatedly) celebrate The Day of The Sun, and it’s one thing to threaten a “super-mighty” nuke strike on the US mainland (that’s nothing new), but now Pyongyang is firing missiles indiscriminately even as it’s become increasingly clear that Donald Trump is looking for an excuse to carry out a preemptive strike.
As you’ve undoubtedly heard by now, that’s exactly what Kim did on Friday evening. That is, he fired another fucking missile. Here’s the original report from Yonhap:
North Korea launched a ballistic missile on Saturday from an area north of Pyongyang, South Korea’s military said.
“North Korea fired an unidentified missile from a site in the vicinity of Bukchang in Pyeongannam-do (South Pyeongan Province) early this morning,” the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said in a statement.
The JSC is analyzing the type and flight distance of the projectile.
Predictably, it was a failure, as the projectile (likely a medium-range KN-17) exploded after liftoff without ever leaving North Korea territory.
Some commentators are pitching this as a response to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s address to the UN Security Council where he said this:
Basically, Tillerson said Trump is fully prepared to start shooting. Washington’s top diplomat, in his first address to the Security Council as Secretary of State, warned of “catastrophic consequences,” and suggested it was “likely only a matter of time before North Korea develops the capability to strike the US mainland”.
North Korea launched the missile just hours later.
As Bloomberg wrote this evening, “the Security Council meeting caps a flurry of U.S. activity this week aimed at injecting urgency into resolving the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, which are banned under UN resolutions.”
In the simplest possible terms, and at the risk of coming across as overly crass, Kim is about to fuck up here. And “bigly.”
See, this administration does not understand the nuance. All you have to do is recall what Trump said about his meeting with Xi in Mar-a-Lago:
After listening for 10 minutes, I realized it’s not so easy. I felt pretty strongly that [China] had a tremendous power over North Korea. But it’s not what you would think.
Are you picking up what I’m laying down here? Because Kim apparently isn’t. Trump doesn’t understand anything about this. All he understands is that he’s saying one thing (“don’t you fucking test me”) and Kim is responding by provoking Trump further.
That’s Kim’s big miscalculation. What he doesn’t understand is that this is primarily about Trump’s ego and Trump’s pride.
A missile test is one thing. But a missile test conducted just hours after Tillerson spoke and perhaps more importantly, just 18 or so hours after Reuters published an interview in which Trump said a “major, major” conflict is possible, is a blatant “fuck you.”
But the problem for Kim is that he thinks he’s saying “fuck you” to America. But what Trump hears is “fuck you Donald Trump.” And that’s dangerous.