Why does a war happen? It can be a clash of civilisations driven by religion, a fight for independence against an oppressor, a battle for land and resources, or a stand against an invading foe. Sometimes it can be down to sheer idiocy, where something trivial can result in the unnecessary death of hundreds, thousands - or even millions.
In 1738, a British mariner named Robert Jenkins displayed a decomposing ear before Parliament. He claimed that a Spanish coastguard officer had sliced off his ear seven years earlier as punishment for smuggling. The British immediately declared war (known as War of Jenkins’ Ear) on Spain. Just over a century later in 1859, Britain and America almost took to arms after an American farmer shot a British pig rooting around his potato patch.
Fortunately minor incidents rarely escalate into full-scale conflict as somewhere along the line common sense kicks in. Will sober pragmatism win the day in the escalating North Korea crisis? Or should we be seriously concerned bearing in mind the unpredictable, erratic nature of both Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un?
The seriousness of the situation cannot be underestimated. North Korea, even without nuclear weapons has the capacity to wipe out South Korea and possibly Japan. Any unwelcome intervention from the USA could bring China into a conflict. And doing nothing is just as unpalatable with North Korea firing off test missiles at will, many of which scream over the airspace of their neighbours.
How did an impoverished failing nation become such a military power? Don’t forget this is a country whose GDP amounts to half the amount Americans spend on their pets. How has he ruled so easily in a country where many of his people live in extreme poverty? And Why does North Korea crave a nuclear arsenal?
The easiest question to answer is: Why does North Korea want nuclear weapons?
In January 2002, a few months after 9/11, President George W. Bush delivered his State of the Union address. Although the attacks on America had been plotted by Jihadis based in the Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, Bush was out for revenge on all perceived enemies of the US, whether connected to the Twin Towers atrocities or not. Three countries were named as an Axis of Evil: Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
Of the three axis nations, only one was invaded - the weakest, Iraq. Even in his fury, Bush knew that an Iranian war would result in huge loss of American lives. For the North Koreans, the solution was clear. The best way to deter American aggression was to build more powerful weapons.
Peter Wilby in The New Statesman writes, “Kim Jong-un lives in terror of an American attack. This is not the paranoia of a madman. Post-1945 history gives him good reason for such fears.”
“During the Korean war in the early 1950s – between a Soviet-backed regime in the north and a US-backed regime in the south – American generals, supported by many members of Congress, twice demanded authorisation to use nuclear weapons. On the second occasion, General Douglas MacArthur wanted to drop between 30 and 50 atomic bombs. Instead, the Americans used conventional bombing which was unlike anything used in the Second World War except Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Pyongyang, the northern capital, was destroyed. Five large dams were bombed, causing floods that wiped out the rice harvest. Many North Koreans were forced to live in underground tunnels.
“… If your country had a history like that, wouldn’t you want a nuclear deterrent?”
The Cult of Kim Jong-un
North Korea has suffered first hand from the force of the American military and sat firmly on the Soviet / Chinese side during the decades of the Cold War, so it is understandably wary of the west. But this could be said for many countries. Almost half of the globe looked East during those nervy years when many countries were forced to decide whose side they were on. The world changed when the Berlin Wall fell, but North Korea remains an enigma. What is so different about North Korea? Why has it continually embraced such a rigid form of communism?
It’s a moot point if it has ever been a ‘communist country’ in the first place. It seems unlikely that when Karl Marx wrote The Communist Manifesto, he was dreaming of a country full of starving people ruled by a man who believes he has power derived from the gods. Jong-un more closely resembles a Tudor king. Mark Bowden, writing in Vanity Fair points out that the North Koreans have never really known anything different: “North Korea has never known anything other than absolute rule. Before Korea’s annexation by Japan, in 1910, Koreans were living under a monarchy. After that came rule by imperial Japan: Koreans bowed to the emperor. When the Soviet Union liberated North Korea, in 1945, Kim Il Sung stepped into the monarch’s role.”
If anything, Jong-un is more than a monarch - he is descended from the gods, a divine figure. Grown men and women weep tears of joy if they see him at one of the state showpiece events, many faint as the emotions becomes too much to bear.
Who is this man who can provoke such adulation? The first source of information for spoiled modern-day journalists is that mine of information, Wikipedia. And immediately it is clear that there is something afoot. No-one really knows much about him - incredible as it sounds in this age of information.
Take his date of birth, which is listed as:
- 8th January 1982 (age 35) (North Korean records)
- 8th January 1983 (age 34) (South Korean records)
- 8th January 1984 (age 33) (American records)
- 5th July 1984 (age 33) (Swiss records)
A case of poor record-keeping? Or perhaps it is something more sinister and controlling.
Bowden suggests it is a rewriting of history by the North Koreans: “The original Kim, the current leader’s grandfather and national founder, Kim Il Sung, for whom universal reverence is mandatory, was born in 1912. As the story goes, in 1942 his son and heir, Kim Jong Il, came along… In truth, Kim II was born in 1941, but in North Korea myth trumps fact to an even greater extent than elsewhere, and numeric symmetry hints at destiny, like a divine wink. That is why 1982 was seen to be an auspicious year for the birth of Kim III.”
It is widely agreed that Jong-un studied for a while in Switzerland although details are murky. Apparently he was a poor scholar, who didn’t feel any need to work hard. His passion was only ignited by football and particularly basketball. Many years later the NBA’s most flamboyant star, Dennis Rodman became one of the very few Westerners welcomed as a visitor to North Korea.
A European education should have been an opportunity to open his eyes to the wider world, but this was not to be the case. Bowden writes, “Even in his Swiss years, his school was just a short distance from the North Korean Embassy. Outside those walls, he was always accompanied by a bodyguard. Imagine a small Asian boy attending a European school where it’s unlikely that anyone speaks his language, and who is surrounded by adults who sternly eyeball anyone who gets close, and you can guess at how normal his social interactions were.”
Although the bodyguards would have alerted his contemporaries that he was a man of some import, no-one knew just how important. He was not the natural heir as he was the third oldest son (though not necessarily to the same mothers).
The eldest Kim Jong Nam, was seen a liability after being caught visiting Tokyo Disneyland using fake ID, thus exposing the clandestine trips made by the rest of the family. The next son was seen as being too ‘feminine’. And so Jong-un returned home and was fast-tracked to the highest office.
Bowden reports the the young man showed “a genius for combat and military manoeuvres, commanding a “shock brigade” in the harsh mountains of the far northeast. Battle-hardened, albeit still soft around the edges, Kim began to make appearances as a minor but intriguing character in the standard-issue novels and poems praising his father. Young Kim was portrayed as a precocious military genius who piloted helicopters, drove tanks, and manned the most sophisticated weapons systems.”
Now he was the chosen one, the propaganda system sparked into life. As with most totalitarian regimes, the greatest architects were never charged to build great homes or schools - their job is to build the most awe-inspiring monuments to the greatness of the leader. The life of the first first Kim (II Sung) was celebrated with Juche Tower in Pyongyang, built with 25,550 blocks of granite (one for each day to the 70th year of the country’s founder and eternal president) and topped with a 45-tonne red metal flame. There is also a 22-metre bronze statue of Kim outside his mausoleum.
The Economist reports that the first big monument to Kim Jong-un was beside the pristine caldera lake atop the sacred Mount Paektu, on the border with China. The Kim family claims ties to Mount Paektu - Kim Jong Il is said to have been born on its snowy slopes (he was actually born in Russia). It follows other fresh attempts at cult consolidation: portraits of the three generations of Kims, each standing on Mount Paektu, have appeared as triptychs in museums. Work on mosaic murals of Mr Kim, to be displayed in each province, is under way.
Then there is the TV, radio, films and the glorious military parades - and even state-controlled pop groups. No doubt you will be familiar with the 2012 hit by the all-girl rock band Moranbong, entitled: “We Call Him Father”.
Having gained power after his father’s death in 2011, he showed a ruthless streak designed to add the all-important fear factor. Expecting full and utter adoration from all and sundry, his uncle Jang Song-thaek paid the ultimate price for lacking the appropriate passion for his leader. Jang was a powerful and influential member of the establishment, but refused to clap enthusiastically enough when his nephew entered the room. He was executed and a lengthy statement was broadcast on his traitorous plotting.
Earlier this year, Jong-un also had his brother, Kim Jong Nam, murdered for the same reason - lack of adulation and respect. Jong Nam, living in exile, had declared that he didn’t think his brother would last in the job. Around the same time his son called the North Korean regime a “dictatorship” on a Finnish talk show. Jong Nam’s death was not a big surprise.
The result of all this is Jong-un has total control over the state. It is reported that no-one dares to counsel him and the control of his vast weaponry is unchallenged. He eats and drinks to excess, and is known to be a prolific womaniser.
As for the hair cut - it is styled to imitate his esteemed grandfather, and is much copied throughout the country. As ridiculous as it looks there is a genuine reason behind the cut. Whether there is a genuine reason behind his goading of Trump and the west remains to be seen.
Who can stop Kim Jong-un?
One man believes he can - Donald Trump. He has pointedly criticised the inaction of previous presidents, promised that he will stop North Korea from perfecting a nuclear warhead and warned of fire and fury.
Is this just hot air? As mad as Trump can be, he does not hold the ultimate power in his own country, unlike his North Korean adversary.
An attack on North Korea would be calamitous. The regime has been preparing for an attack for decades. Apparently they even uncovered the top-secret military plans being hatched by the Americans and South Koreans.
Any attack on North Korea would inevitably cause unthinkable loss of life on both sides and could pull China into the war zone.
One of Trump’s more sensible tweets has been to call for more action from China. Does China hold the key?
Historical ties between North Korea and China are certainly very strong. The North Korean’s actively helped the Chinese communists during the Chinese Civil War between 1945 and 1949. When war broke out in Korea, the Chinese paid back the favour.
Today China is keen to avoid a border with South Korea, a country which has fully embraced the ideas and values of Western societies. North Korea provides a handy bulwark between the ideologically diametric worlds.
But, as is the norm in world politics, the relationship is not as straightforward as you may think. In the West, the prevailing view is that the situation could easily be calmed if Chinese President Xi Jinping took the podgy Jong-un to one side and gave him a stern talking to. This isn’t even close to the reality.
Isabel Hilton, CEO of the China Dialogue Trust, writes: “China was and remains North Korea’s major ally, but that does not make North Korea obedient. Their bilateral history is a story of growing defiance and increasing alienation: Kim Il-sung ignored Mao Zedong’s attempt to dissuade him from naming his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, as his successor. He had visited Beijing once a year and had promised that his son would follow suit, but Kim Jong-il only visited Deng Xiaoping’s China once, in 1983. His next visit came three years after Deng’s death, a death for which Kim had offered no formal condolences, as even the most minimal protocol required.”
“On that visit, Kim heard the unwelcome news that China, already closer to the United States than he would have wished, was to open relations with his bitter rival, South Korea. When the third dynastic leader, the young Kim Jong-un, took power in 2011, relations with China slid further. Tellingly, Kim Jong-un has not visited Beijing at all, nor has China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, visited Pyongyang, although he has held four summit meetings with South Korea.
“Kim Jong-un has made his defiance publicly evident. Not only has he chosen to test his missiles and weapons, but he has selected such highly sensitive moments as last year’s G20 summit in Hangzhou to do so.”
China is in no mood to tell North Korea what to do. Indeed, would North Korea listen anyway? And China definitely has no interest in doing Trump’s bidding.
In the New Statesman, John Nilsson- Wright writes: “For now, Xi appears to have concluded that Trump is bluffing when he threatens military action against the North. He also seems unconcerned about Trump’s calls for the suspension of all US trade with any country doing business with the North. The latter is nonsensical, non-enforceable, and the blowback from this would be potentially devastating to the US economy (as well as the interests of Trump’s domestic political base).
“The Chinese are more likely to be worried by the medium to long-term implications of the current crisis. In Seoul and Tokyo, the appetite is growing for better South Korean and Japanese defence capabilities to deal with the North. A regional arms race is directly at odds with Beijing’s regional strategic interests.”
In addition, any attack on North Korea could create a surge of refugees across the Chinese border.
China’s stance has been to play it cool, and offer some form of brokering, rather than dive in headfirst. China and Russia have put forward a proposal that both sides should make concessions. North Korea would suspend its nuclear and its missile testing in return for a suspension of South Korea’s annual military exercises with the United States. Hopefully this kind of diplomacy may offer a way out without pricking the fragile egos of Trump and Jong-un.
Perhaps the key word in the paragraph above is Russia. Yet again, it could be that Putin holds all the cards. Whether it is Eastern Europe, the Middle East or anywhere, it always comes back to Putin. He may be the man that Trump and Jong-un can do business with - and, meanwhile, the power of the ex-KGB man grows ever stronger.