We’ve spent the past two decades fighting wars in the Middle East and before that we had the Cold War with Russia. So little attention has been given to North Korea in the media until very recently, making it difficult for the average citizen to understand how much of a threat, if any, North Korea poses for us.
North Korea: A Brief Overview
Not much has changed in North Korea over the years. For three generations, the country has been run by the same family and the same political party–the communist Korean Workers Party. Due to North Korea’s isolationist policies and centralized economic system, the people have continuously suffered economic hardships: food shortages, shortages of fuel and electricity, and high unemployment (2). And though the conditions for people are deplorable, North Korea has clamped down on its borders in an attempt to prevent people from defecting. Reports indicate that those who attempt to defect are jailed and in some circumstances killed (1).
While the people of North Korea suffer, the political establishment has been erecting a facade of prosperity in the capital, Pyongyang, to bolster the image of the new leader, Kim Jong-un. Among other things, they’ve built new apartments and an amusement park for the children of the elite. Women walk through the city chatting on their cell phones [restricted to national calls only] (2).
Kim Jong-Un: When Spoiled Immaturity Meets Omnipotence
From all indications, Kim Jong-un is a spoiled and immature thirty-something (his birth date remains uncertain). He is known to be a heavy drinker who enjoys a lavish lifestyle (2); and he is fascinated with the NBA, as seen with Dennis Rodman’s recent visit (3).
As the youngest son of the former dictator, Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un was provided with the best education money can buy, including two college degrees. (Of course, this doesn’t necessarily mean that he earned these degrees. Given the power of his family, it is feasible that he was granted these degrees with minimal or no effort on his part).
Kim Jong-un took over as “Supreme Leader” of North Korea when his father died in 2011. Years prior, when the line of succession had been decided, a propaganda campaign was initiated to create a cult of personality for him, including bestowing nicknames on him such as “Brilliant Comrade.” He was also given numerous political titles in the years prior to his father’s death in order to boost his reputation (1).
It has been reported by defectors, intelligence agencies, and human rights workers that Kim Jong-un’s hold on power is much more precarious than his father’s, however. There even has been a recent assassination attempt (1) (2). However, with the government’s fierce and violent grip over its citizens, it is not likely that a revolution will occur any time soon.
Are the Recent Threats Bark or Bite?
Given that Kim Jong-un is used to getting his way, it seems reasonable that the instability of his power will cause him to react harshly. It also seems reasonable that he is more likely than the average dictator to intentionally incite military aggression. A war would not only gift his people with a common enemy, it would also allow him to present himself as a great defender and savior, thus adding stability to his power.
Would the U.S. be in danger if he acts on his threats? Regretfully, due to North Korea’s long-standing isolationism, we don’t have full knowledge of their weaponry. This has caused endless speculation with little consensus. It is certain that North Korean missiles can reach our allies South Korea and Japan. It is less certain, but likely, that they could hit Guam and possibly Hawaii. It is even less certain if they can strike the U.S. mainland or not. The only definitive conclusion we can make from all of this is that whether we face an imminent threat or not, we will be a part of the military solution if Kim Jong-un acts on his threats. (4) (5) (6).