Were North Korean leader Kim Jong UnKim Jong UnNorth Korea bans leather coats after Kim starts new fashion trend Belarus and Russia must resolve the migrant crisis on their own North Korea's Kim makes first public appearance in month MORE a modern-day Hamlet, he occasionally would act like a madman — or, as the moody Dane in Shakespeare’s work put it, put an antic disposition on — out of guilt for having had his uncle killed in 2013 upon the urging of his father’s ghost. But even as Kim dutifully commemorated this week the anniversary of his father’s 2011 death, the “Korean king” still may not have entirely exorcised his mental plague: “To be by nuking up, or not to be by giving it up.”
Indeed, as the Korean Central News Agency reported on Kim’s tribute to his late father’s embalmed body on Tuesday, the filial son and his followers reaffirmed their “fiery resolution” to do all they can “in the struggle for the final victory of the great task of the Juche Revolution.”
Moreover, doing his best to honor his father’s wishes to actualize “denuclearization” with North Korean characteristics, Kim is a most doting son, as was his father before him. By embalming their fathers, both Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un have saved them the indignity of being eaten by worms. Voracious readers as the Kims are, they sensibly took heed of Hamlet’s dictum, “We fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots. Your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service — two dishes, but to one table.”
The existence of free and prosperous South Korea next door, a magnet to the North Korean people, is a sobering reminder of what may lie in store for the North Korean tyrant, should he let his guard down and grant his enslaved people even the most basic freedoms. South Korea’s economy is at least 60 times bigger than the North’s, a disparity between two neighboring states joined contiguously by land that is unparalleled in the world.
Hence, South Korea, no matter how abjectly submissive to Kim it presently may be, is a constant security threat and the leading candidate for inheriting the destitute North. And it is this existential question of “to be, or not to be” — that single-minded drive to avert the fate that befell Romanian strongman Nicolae Ceausescu and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi — that propels the Kim dynasty’s decades-old stratagem of nuclear duplicity.
Kim’s father and grandfather laid the foundation of North Korea’s nuclear strategy while, for good measure, conning the U.S. of over $1.3 billion in aid from 1995 to 2008. Now, with three successful intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) blasts and a thermonuclear test in 2017, Kim has nearly completed his nuclear arsenal. In his 2018 New Year’s Day speech, he signaled that he would deign to meet with leaders of other states, including the United States.
Indeed, after six years of calculated hermetic weirdness, Kim in 2018 shed his shell of isolation and methodically met with China’s Xi Jinping in March, May and June; South Korea’s Moon Jae-in in April, May and September; and President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE in June. In 2019, he met again with Xi in January; with Trump in February; Russia’s Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinBiden administration resists tougher Russia sanctions in Congress More than 50 dead, one rescued in Russian mine explosion NATO to discuss ways to deter Russia: Lithuanian official MORE in April; and once again with Trump in June, as Moon dutifully fulfilled his role as spectator. As a result, Kim has given the world the false hope that, this time, the North Korean regime may have chosen “not to be” and disarm.
The return in recent weeks of hostile talk amid the North’s threats of “bigger catastrophic consequences” as Kim’s manipulative year-end deadline for U.S. concessions approaches, has many wondering what may come next: an ICBM launch, or another thermonuclear test?
What’s far more important than what Kim does next is what Trump does not do next: Revert to crisis management appeasement upon Kim’s post-provocation peace ploy. A provocation much more serious than the 13 rounds of short-range missile tests since May will come in due course. As North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho stated in 2017, a rocket-borne live nuclear warhead, either atmospheric or exoatmospheric, is a certainty to come. Ri spoke of “the strongest hydrogen bomb test over the Pacific Ocean,” which sounds like a blast spawning a mushroom cloud in the sky for the world to see.
While it would mark the first such test by any state since the 1960s, and be viewed as a serious provocation, in the end it would be just a weapons test, the likes of which the U.S., Soviet Union and China carried out several times in the 1950s and 1960s. North Korea has a compelling need to demonstrate it can marry a nuclear warhead with a rocket, even if the delivery system is not an ICBM. Then the world will infer that North Korea has the capability to launch an ICBM-borne nuclear warhead and is a constant nuclear threat to the U.S. mainland.
And there’s the rub. At that moment of vexation, Washington may breathe rhetorical fire and call for more stringent sanctions. But, after a few months, chances are the U.S. will determine it’s nobler to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune than to risk self-immolation by taking arms against a nuclear-armed Kim wearing an antic disposition. The result will be for the U.S. to terminate sanctions, accept Kim as a responsible steward of nukes and gulags, sign a peace agreement with the North, withdraw U.S. troops from South Korea, and render South Korea a vulnerable prey to Kim’s designs for final victory.
Instead, the U.S. must resolutely enforce sanctions against the Kim regime in the face of its calculated threats, to the point of bankruptcy. Absent an impending sense of financial ruin and banishment, Kim will not make any meaningful concessions. The Obama administration levied fines in the hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars — in some cases, billions of dollars — against major banks in violation of U.S. sanctions laws on Iran. Nothing even remotely close to such financial pressure has been exerted on North Korea and its partners engaged in illicit financial transactions.
In “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark,” Polonius advises his son, Laertes, “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” North Korea throughout its existence has borrowed, but never lent or paid back. The U.S. must immediately stop lending Kim more time to build more bombs and money, in the form of sanctions non-enforcement, neither of which Washington is likely to recover.
Instead, Washington must make a full-throttled effort to seize Kim’s kleptocracy-derived funds and make Kim “borrow” incrementally from the proceeds from fines and forfeitures only in return for the denuclearization of North Korea and for humanitarian purposes — thus, making it clear to Kim that, in the end, that really is the question: “To be, or not to be.”
Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.