The U.S., China, and Preparing for North Korea's Demise
January 31, 2011
Much of the recent commentary on North Korea focuses on two dimensions. The first is the personal story line, depicting North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his heir apparent Kim Jong Eun as irrational dictators intent on playing brinksmanship with the West. The second is the international context within which the "hermit kingdom" operates, including the policies of the U.S., South Korea, China, and the other members of the ASEAN Regional Forum. These analyses often overlook a key third perspective: politics in Pyongyang have their own strategic logic, driven by an entrenched military elite perpetually seeking to justify its power and privileges. These elites intentionally provoke occasional crises in order to paint outsiders as enemies and thereby legitimize their stranglehold on North Korea's national resources. As recently as the 1980s, North Korea could make a credible claim that its living standards were on par with the South's. Those days are gone, and the impoverished North's only means of legitimizing its kleptocratic government is to trumpet its nuclear weapons program and periodically reinforce fear of foreign adversaries.