Current TV news programs are saturated with many foreign affairs analysts. Almost all of them indicate that Kim Jong Un is crazy, unstable and irrational. So, how exactly does a crazy person successfully maintain a family dynasty into a third generation?
Instead, I suggest that Kim is actually very smart. He learned the skills of despotism from his father and grandfather. He knows how to manage power, hold power and keep opponents and adversaries off balance. The U.S. and other western powers have struggled with North Korea since 1950. We have tried war, peace, a variety of sanctions, providing intermittent supplies for humanitarian aid and finally “strategic patience.” All forms of the carrot or the stick have failed. Here we are with a steadily advancing military nuclear power. Why have we failed to connect with or influence this man?
We really don’t fully understand him, so we dismiss him as unstable and irrational because he fails to cooperate with 21st-century methods. In reality, I suggest Kim is a classic 17th-century, brutal monarch. He happens to be ruling in the 21st century. Reading European and Russian history leads me to this conclusion, especially studying Peter the Great, who ruled 1682-1725. The similarities between the two men are striking.
Both rule their counties in the feudal style with a huge percentage of the population held captive as serfs — slaves — or workers of the state. Both countries suffer from a serious inferiority complex.
Both countries were invaded by numerous outside powers. Both leaders exhibit spontaneous, unpredictable brutality against competitors, enemies or even close family members. Both leaders claim to be godlike or anointed by God to rule their respective countries.
Both leaders maintain power by creating and fostering exterior threats to their countries that only they say they can successfully defeat. Specifically, Peter the Great was always at war. He fought the Swedes, the Poles, the Germans and Ottomans. It didn’t matter who, what mattered was the threat. Kim uses the French invasion in 1866, the U.S. invasion in 1871, Korean War of 1950-53 and the Japanese colonization of 1910 to demonstrate the dangers of the outside world to his people.
Both leaders demonstrate great interest in the technology of their times as it relates to military applications. Peter researched shipbuilding firsthand and supervised the construction of the first real Russian Navy. He also was an expert in explosives and artillery. Kim has amassed a million man army with an enormous artillery and armor force in addition to the quickly advancing intercontinental ballistic missile and nuclear armament program.
Both leaders utilize people as a slave workforce to advance the goals of the state.
Both leaders use external force to make their countries relevant. When Peter finally defeated the Swedes in 1709, this victory made Russia relevant in Europe. Peter then capitalized on this victory with a series of arranged marriages with European nobility to finally bring Russia into the European sphere. Kim has created alliances with renegade countries of the world — Iran, Cuba, Pakistan and Venezuela — in order to give North Korea relevance in the 21st century.
The U.S. and the West have attempted to deal with Kim as a 21st-century man. He is not that man. His mental framework resides in the 17th century. Our diplomats and military strategists have to approach this gravely dangerous problem from a 17th-century perspective. Power is the only thing feudal despots understand or respect. We are in a high stakes poker game. Deny Kim all outside resources and money at every level so he cannot manufacture anything or maintain spare parts or placate his small group of supporters with western comforts. At the same time, we display overwhelming examples of power in the Korean sphere with military “maneuvers,” missile launches and discussions of a nuclear-armed Japan. The combination of those activities should bring him to the table. All of these activities are risky and dangerous, but now with an imminent nuclear threat, they are necessary.