Is Provocation Leadership? Kim Jong Un and the Diplomacy of Aggression

Dictatorship has its privileges, it seems. Including threatening war in order to — well, that’s not quite clear, yet.

Ernesto Lonono, in a thoughtful profile in the Washington Post, notes that “making sense of the Kims has been more of an art than a science. A cadre of North Korea scholars has spent decades piecing together a portrait of the eccentric, secretive family by poring through mounds of propoganda, defector accounts and the limited, sporadic contact the regime has had with the West.”

The latest reports suggest “his recent bout of bellicose rhetoric probably represents a desperate cry for legitimacy rather than a genuine appetite for combat.” The article analyzes Kim Jong Un as a man “with an inferiority complex” who launched the threat of nuclear missile attack without a clear exit strategy. That last note — the weak exit strategy — may be the most dangerous aspect of the dictator’s game, for him, his country, his allies, and his suddenly on-alert “enemies.”

If my understanding of the reaction to Kim Jong Un’s threats is accurate, the game is not resulting in the respect and fear he hoped for, domestically or even among his allies in China.

The Guardian reports that the threat has harmed the North Korean economy, already fragile. “More than 50,000 worked at the Kaesong joint industrial complex before Pyongyang suspended operations there this week. Several Chinese tourism agencies have called off visits, denting the economy further, and some trading companies in the Chinese border town of Dandong said they believed the tensions had caused a downturn in business this spring. On Sunday, the South China Morning Post said the Kempinski hotel chain had withdrawn from recent plans to manage the Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang, still under construction 26 years after it was first begun.”

China has backed trade sanctions and openly criticized Kim’s “troublemaking at the doorsteps of China.” It’s also been widely reported  that Chinese Internet bloggers (most posting with pseudonyms) are questioning the effectiveness of the Chinese alliance with North Korea, and even suggesting a pre-emptive strike to prevent a war across the borders. In a culture of propogandized public expression, with dissent from official policy rare, this is a significant sign of an official shift in policy. North Korea may be nuking itself in the foot.

It’s clear that this kind of provocation demonstrates a lack of leadership skill, and possibly a failed leadership strategy from the strategists behind the dictator’s public persona.


Choe Sang Hun reports in the NY Times that “the packaging of Mr. Kim as the embodiment of the North’s widely revered founding president suggests that a well-oiled machine is at work to create a new leader. The strategy of having Mr. Kim assume his grandfather’s persona, and relying on nostalgia for the “Great Leader” to justify and consolidate his dynastic succession, reflects the slightness of the young leader’s own résumé, as well as the length of his grandfather’s and father’s shadows, under which he must rule. It also suggests a note of desperation among the nomenklatura, who know that their own privileged positions depend on the survival of the Kim dynasty.”

It’s hard to represent a dynasty, harder still to hold a mythic place in a practical world where propoganda can’t hide the starvation and repression of the North Korean nation. In this context, the leader’s failure is tripled:

-he may have backed himself into a corner with both allies and adversaries

-he may not be capable of holding the mythic space of his role, despite repression and propoganda

-he may not have the vital diplomatic practical skills even to be an effective figurehead (See my earlier post about the comical over-inflation of his power and gifts, which can’t help matters much)

Thrust into a top position and creating a crisis in an already contested landscape, Kim demonstrates the sad fact that some provocations are not leadership at all. His threat was simply a dangerous act of self-sabotage, just as a boy with a stick pokes at a hornet’s nest, never thinking he might get stung.

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