Don't mistake North Korea's Kim Jong Un as a madman
© Getty

What kind of a problem is North Korea? Is it really a country that wants to provoke a war that, as it well knows itself, would surely result in its own extinction? Or is it involved in a game they used to call “chicken” — who is the first to yield? Pyongyang certainly puts on stellar military parades these days. Is North Korea pressing to see how much they can gain by bluffing, prancing, and provoking others whom they consider unwilling to do what it wants? It is a dangerous game, no doubt.

The odds are, however, that their estimation of the will of those whom they provoke, even of President Trump, is pretty accurate. North Korea is now on the map. It assists other nations to develop nuclear power and weapons.


Their David, with his nuclear sling-shot, has challenged the perceived Goliath’s massive retaliatory armament. In practice, in recent decades, North Korea’s enemies seem, in its view, to be mostly bluster.

Most Western voices still say: “Don’s shoot!” “Isolate them!” “Let them rot like Cuba.” This view is not to forget that Cuba has military and intelligence presence in many countries in Latin America.

North Korea is a truncated country consisting of some 25 million Koreans not given to diversity. The capital of South Korea, its other half, is about 35 miles from the North Korean frontier. South Korea has some 50 million inhabitants. Seoul itself has 10 million inhabitants.  It is taken for granted that North Korea has targeted, even with non-nuclear weapons, its neighboring capital to deter any interference with its own dynasty or security.

One hears little of any internal opposition to the regime within North Korea. As a reminder, Kim Jong-Nam, the half-brother of the president, was recently murdered in Malaysia. American and South Korean troops have manned the frontier since the truce at the end of the Korean War in the 1950’s. We are still technically at war with North Korea.

The president of North Korea has the most unique haircut in public life.  None of the hair styles displayed even in the NBA can match it. The president is said to be a madman, from a ruling family of madmen. I tend to question how “mad” he really is. His missiles, for example, never are directed at China or Russia. Most of North Korea’s trade is with China. The presumed “madman” knows enough not to mess with China. China sees that North Korea can be useful to its own interests. These facts alone would lead one to suspect a streak of reasonable caution in the man who rules North Korea.

Those whom Kim Jong Un threatens are only the ones whom he knows can be threatened with relative impunity to himself. Indeed, he understands from past experience that threatening itself can be rewarding to his interests in terms of financial aid or international prestige.

We know South Korea because of Kia, lady golfers, and sophisticated technology. Almost daily we have watched on TV the development of nuclear weapons and missile deliverance systems in North Korea. We have heard threats to blow up Alaska, Guam, perhaps San Francisco. We have also heard that, if this attack happens, it will be met with “fire and fury.”

Meantime, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, Australia, and South Korea itself look on. These areas have been promised protection by the Americans in various treaties. Thus, even though these latter are closer to North Korea with their own armaments, it was not really their problem. Making the world safe was the mission of the one country with the biggest supply of nuclear weapons, originally designed to deter the Soviet Union.

But step by step, countries like Pakistan, India, Iran, Israel, not to mention the European powers and even Brazil, have the know-how to produce nuclear weapons. In this sense, even one deliverable nuclear weapon is a deterrent. Much literature is also devoted to the capacity of Iran or ISIS to deliver such weapons wherever they choose. Possibilities of a small ISIS ship outfitted with nuclear devices quietly pulling into a dock in New York, San Pedro, Antwerp, or the Thames are in many ways more worrisome than North Korea’s missiles.

But North Koreans are not Muslim fanatics and are not motivated by the same principles. We do not see coming from North Korea, as we do from Cuba, or China, or Vietnam much ideological posturing or effort to convert others to a way of life. Kim Jong Un is not trying to make Trump and his countrymen Korean Marxists or Nationalists. Bernie SandersBernie SandersGabbard hits DNC over poll criteria for debates The Hill's Campaign Report: Democratic field begins to shrink ahead of critical stretch Keystone XL Pipeline gets nod from Nebraska Supreme Court MORE makes more efforts to make us socialist than do the North Koreans.

North Korea has its Marxist origins with Kim II-song in the early twentieth century. It has evolved, if that is the right word, toward a more self-reliant philosophy called Juche. It stresses what an individual can do, discipline. North Korea indeed seems to have a more “We’ll show you what we can do by ourselves” complex. This approach sounds like boasting and a certain defiance of others. But it does shed some light on the notion that North Korea is populated only by madmen.  

G.K. Chesterton said that the first thing we need to know about our enemy is not how many weapons he has, but what is his philosophy. We tend to see North Korea simply as a deranged absolute state in which its citizens are wholly suppressed. There is much truth to this view, but there is something about the Korean character, north and south, that set it apart.

Muslims want everyone to be Muslim. Christians would like to see everyone to be a believer. But one can only be a Korean by being born one. This sense of self-reliance and defiance may well be what is behind the astonish scenes that we witness when we see North Korean missiles shooting in the skies in every direction but north to Russia and east to China.

The Rev. James Schall, S.J., author of “A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning & Being Forgiven,” is professor emeritus at Georgetown University.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.