UNLESS you’ve been residing on an isolated island cut-off from all forms of communication, you would have noticed the North Korean situation has ramped up in recent days to a fever pitch unlike anything we’ve seen in recent decades.
Understandably, this was met with international condemnation, an erratic flurry of tweets from the US president and finally, the country and its allies pushing for firmer sanctions against Pyongyang in the United Nations Security Council.
Monday’s meeting of the 15-member group saw US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley claiming North Korea’s Kim Jong Un was “begging for war”.
Given the North’s repeated refusal to stop the missile tests and curb their nuclear programme, on the surface of it, “begging for war” is exactly what Pyongyang appears to be doing.
But this begs the question, why?
If talks were what they wanted, they could have taken US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson up on his offer weeks ago, prior to the escalating show of force.
There is a common misconception among much of the media and alarmists that Kim Jong Un is simply a “madman” – as has been repeatedly reinforced by President Donald Trump. He is often painted as an irrational lunatic gunning for a fight and a person who cannot be reasoned with.
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But this is not the case as Kim is aware that the only result of any all-out war would be significant North Korean casualties, the incorporation of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) into the Seoul-led Republic of Korea (ROK) and most certainly, the demise of his regime.
So what is the motive behind his apparent kamikaze mission to push the US and its allies to the brink of war?
This is an issue that continues to confound analysts. With very little intelligence into the motives of the regime, anyone who tells you they know exactly what North Korea wants is likely lying; but there are a number of likely motives that hold some sway.
1. Regime (and self) preservation
Probably the most common explanation. Kim has spent his first years in power consolidating his position by eliminating potential rivals – often in colourful ways, such as with the use of anti-aircraft gun.
This may go some way to explaining Kim’s rush to develop and show off a nuclear arsenal capable of the US. Learning through experience – think Muammar Gaddafi in Libya – Kim does not want to see himself in a position that can see the US overthrow him without fear of reprisal.
With weapons that can hit the US, the assumption is that the White House would not risk an overthrow attempt when they stand to suffer losses.
2. The regime is fundamentally weak and this is all bravado
Despite the bombastic rhetoric and fierce patriotism abounds in North Korea – both from its leaders and the media – the regime has essentially lost the battle for the Korean peninsula. When compared with bitter rival Seoul, which controls twice the population of North Korea and an economy 30 times larger, it is easy to understand why Pyongyang fears “absorption” by the South.
Given its comparative lack of military capabilities, the North is left with little more than swagger.
“To compensate for its lack of military capabilities relative to its adversaries, Pyongyang has, for decades, employed a strategy of bravado: signalling it is willing to take extreme risks and is not afraid to go to war against the militarily superior forces of the US-ROK alliance,” explains Denny Roy, Senior Fellow and Supervisor of POSCO Fellowship Program at East-West Center.
“The DPRK’s nuclear weapons and missile programmes are another form of compensation for weakness.”
The showmanship of the nuclear tests, the missile launches and the ever-present enemy of the US is also good for business. The heavy arsenal and threat of attack engender both fear and loyalty in the country’s populace. This keeps Kim firmly in the revered spot of supreme leader and number one defender of the North.
3. Reunification of Korea
This has been a dream of the Kim regime since the signing of an armistice in 1953. If Kim can convince US to withdraw some of its 28,000 troops from the South, as former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon suggested could happen, analysts fear Kim would use his nuclear arsenal and the ability to strike the US as a shield to take back the South with force.
Pyongyang’s hope would be, if threatened with a home strike, the Trump administration would think twice about defending Seoul before its own people.
“If the Americans face a choice between San Francisco and Seoul, they will choose San Francisco,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, told The New York Times.
Based on that approach, Lankov said North Korea “can provoke a conflict in South Korea and then they can just basically put an ultimatum to the US telling the Americans that if they get involved, they are going to basically get a North Korean retaliation strike.”
Given Kim’s unpredictability, US officials have been reluctant to dismiss this as a possibility, but many analysts agree that this is likely more a fantasy than anything resembling reality.
All of this remains speculation. It is impossible to know for sure exactly what runs through the mind of the man who holds the world’s attention. Perhaps it is just respect he is after. The desire to develop his nuclear arsenal to the levels of Pakistan or India, who are no longer expected to bargain with their nukes in any negotiation.
“There is a certain universality of wanting to be recognised and respected,” said Cameron Munter, former US ambassador to Pakistan and now president of the East-West Institute.
“And because Americans take this for granted, they don’t see just how deeply motivating that search for respect can be.”