A Soviet-era joke has Alexander the Great, Hannibal and Napoleon Bonaparte watching the military parade at Moscow’s Red Square. Looking at the tanks rolling by, Alexander ruminates, “If I had steeds like these no one could have stopped me.” Hannibal, eyeing the long-range missiles, muses, “If I had spears like these I would not have had to cross the Alps.” Napoleon, ignoring the impressive display of weaponry and reading Pravda instead, sighs, “If I had a newspaper like this no one would have heard of Waterloo.”
While North Korea’s Kim Jong-un came of age after the halcyon days of Pravda as the purveyor of the truth he has imbibed the crucial lesson of obfuscating facts to confound domestic and international audiences. Rodong Sinmun, available online and even in English (http://www.rodong.rep.kp/InterEn/), is little Kim’s Pravda-esque instrument of choice.
On the one hand, the official mouthpiece warns of the “grave situation where the outbreak of a nuclear war on this land is becoming a fait accompli due to the US hostile policy toward the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea)”. On the other hand, the paper prominently reports on a flower show in honour of Kim Il-Sung, the late founder of North Korea and little Kim’s grandfather. This coupled with shrill and blustery fire and brimstone threats and the absence of any major military mobilization have baffled even seasoned Pyongyang watchers about Kim Jong-un’s real intentions.
For instance, even the US, despite having the world’s largest clandestine community with an enviable budget of $75 billion, has been unable to penetrate the veil of secrecy and remains uncertain about the exact nuclear and missile capabilities of North Korea.
While some agencies have “moderate confidence” that North Korea could now tip some missiles with nuclear weapons, others were categorical that the Hermit Kingdom had “not yet demonstrated the full capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile”. Similar confusion is prevalent about the type and yield of its nuclear weapons.
Yet, it is evident that the dynastic dictator’s actions are driven by two considerations: domestic and foreign. Domestically, Kim Jong-un is desperate to prove his prowess to the upper echelons of the Korean People’s Army who considered only Kim Il-Sung as the one true military leader from the family. According to South Korean scholar Chun Min Lee “the Young Marshall is more a figurehead than a head figure”.
The latest round of UN sanctions in response to North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests set the stage for Kim’s brinkmanship and was an opportunity to prove his military mettle. He seized it with both hands and the propaganda machine has been working overtime to portray him as a military genius.
In the foreign sphere, the classic North Korean playbook calls for ratcheting up international tensions, negotiating from a position of strength and striking a deal, which consolidates the leader’s power. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il proved his credentials when he was able to negotiate the “Agreed Framework” with the US in 1994 even as he was still consolidating his position domestically.
While the agreement soon unravelled because of political changes in the US and DPRK’s nuclear weapon programme, it set the standard for future deals. Doubtless Kim Jong-un feels compelled to match this deal. This is a high-risk gamble that has greater chance of failure than success. If the world is lucky and the US, North Korea and China (a key but reluctant actor in this play) are able to hammer out a face-saving agreement, then Rodong Sinmun will present it as a great victory for the new leader. If not, then even Pravda would not have been able to hide a smouldering radioactive wasteland of a country.
W.P.S. Sidhu is a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation, New York University. He writes on strategic affairs every fortnight. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org