Kim Family Dynamics: We Overlook North Korea At Our Peril
What should the world make of Kim Jong-un, his young daughter Ju Ae in tow, flexing North Korea's military hardware? Nothing good, though the scenario that it is mostly just a flex is still the most likely.
Every week, it seems, North Korea announces a new military development. This week it was a visit by Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator, to a satellite production center with his daughter Ju Ae by his side. She's with him on all such occasions. Kim's father used the appearance to announce that North Korea had completed manufacturing a spy satellite, the first of its kind.
Last week, there was Pyongyang's first-ever test of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that uses solid fuel. According to experts, solid fuel makes it easier to load missiles compared to liquid fuel that was used previously. This allows for faster preparations for firing and makes it more difficult to detect any potential launch in advance.
Since the beginning of last year, North Korea has carried out over 100 missile tests of various types as a way to test its weapons, improve its technology, command structures, and coordination of its armed forces. This is a record, and most importantly, it is completely prohibited by UN Security Council resolutions — but Pyongyang doesn't care.
This is a strategy thought out by the Kim family, in power in North Korea for decades. The North Korean nuclear and ballistic program took off under the reign of Kim Jong-il, the father of the current leader, and was accelerated by his son.
North Korea has already conducted six confirmed nuclear tests, making it a de facto nuclear power, and it is unlikely to step back. It has acquired a full range of missiles and a formidable cyber army, and the spy satellite adds to the military arsenal that consumes a significant portion of the resources of this unparalleled country.
The Kim regime wants to be taken seriously.
Despite its warlike rhetoric and outward appearances, North Korea may not be actively preparing for war. Instead, the country appears to be engaged in a dual approach. First and foremost, it seeks to deter potential aggressors by maintaining a robust arsenal, which the regime sees as its life insurance against its historical enemies, the US and South Korea. The other dimension is more complex: the Kim regime wants to be taken seriously.
As we saw in 2018-2019, North Korea engaged in numerous military provocations before reaching out to Donald Trump. This led to the flamboyant Trump-Kim summits, which ultimately resulted in a fruitless honeymoon period, with the US refusing to sign an agreement without a guarantee of denuclearization.
A TV screen shows a footage of North Korea's missile launch during a news program at the Yongsan Railway Station in Seoul on January 1st 2023.
After the breakdown, Kim Jong-un resumed his aggressive rhetoric and military preparations, a long road to prove his capacity for harm. Up until now, it could be thought that he was only seeking the guarantee of his regime's survival and the lifting of economic sanctions.
Today, with concrete support provided to Russia and growing Sino-American tensions, has North Korea revised its ambitions upwards? Is it ready to be more actively confrontational? This would certainly be more worrying.
In the meantime, people in this part of Asia are living under threat, like those on the Japanese island of Hokkaido who were sent to shelters last week because a missile appeared to be headed their way, before falling into the Sea of Japan. In the absence of any real political perspective, the Kim family only seems to want to raise the military stakes. Come what may.
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