The two missile tests conducted by North Korea in recent days have reopened discussions about the country, its leadership, its foreign policy, its perception around the world and the use (and usefulness) of nuclear weapons as an option within global politics.
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North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency announced on September 12 that it had test-fired a new long-range cruise missile, believed by analysts to be the country’s first missile with the capacity to carry a nuclear warhead.
Three days later the South Korean military said the North had launched “two unidentified ballistic missiles” into the Sea of Japan, prompting Japan’s outgoing prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, to order his country’s defence agencies to investigate.
North Korea usually makes grand nuclear statements like the ones we have seen in recent days during early September to mark the founding of the DPRK on September 9 1948. As such, these tests are as much about domestic propaganda and internal regime prestige as they are about threat to the outside world.
More broadly though, North Korea’s advance of its nuclear weapons technology – off and on since the 1950s – has made its integration with the rest of the international community much less likely. This is primarily on account of its development coming at considerable cost and sacrifice to the small nation.
No moral high ground
It can be argued that, given the indiscriminate barbarity of the destruction that a nuclear attack would cause, no state has a moral right to nuclear weapons over that of another state. But countries which already have a nuclear arsenal will often push the line that while it’s OK for them to have a nuclear stockpile, other countries do not necessarily have that right. These communications often rely on a manufactured sense of who is responsible and stable-minded and who is irresponsible and unstable. In short, it is an attempt to create a polarised world of good and evil.
This simplistic polarisation is encouraged through government communications regarding foreign policy. But they also depend on wider more implicit perception management strategies. These include harnessing the agendas of global mainstream news media and exporting popular culture products, films, television programmes and the like, that seek to encourage certain worldviews and to marginalise ones that are undesirable to the world’s most powerful nations.
It should always be remembered that the United States is the only state to have used nuclear weapons as an act of war (twice during 1945). Yet it declares North Korea to be a nuclear threat based on its “madness” (Donald Trump repeatedly called Kim Jong-un “mad”). But if we are to believe revelations from the upcoming book Peril by journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, America’s top military personnel had to take action in the final months of the Trump administration to limit any risks of a nuclear showdown with China.
It’s probably true to say that few aspiring candidates for high office are going to say that they would never use their country’s nuclear capability in any circumstance. But it could also be said that any head of government who boasts of their readiness to use nuclear weapons is demonstrating their lack of fitness to govern. But, as the first part of this paragraph suggests, no candidate is likely to make this assertion.
‘Madman’ theory wrong
There is no evidence that the previous leaders of North Korea, Kim Il-sung or Kim Jong-il, were assessed by psychologists and found to be suffering from mental ill health. This is also true of Kim Jong-un, the country’s current leader – in fact before Kim’s summit with Trump in 2018, a former State Department psychiatrist, Kenneth Dekleva, who creates psychological profiles of foreign leaders, told America’s National Public Radio that: “I think the madman theory was wrong.”
I would say he’s smart, that he’s a very, very savvy diplomat, a leader with a sense of gravitas. He wants to be a player on the world stage.
For Simon Cross, a colleague of mine at Nottingham Trent University, “madness” is an imprecise term and a cultural construct that does not require a trained medical professional to identify it, but it resonates with ease with audiences when uttered by someone they trust. Stephen Harper at the University of Portsmouth, says our perception of what represents “madness” is based on uncritical interpretations of the past and fantasies and inclinations within the human mind towards what he calls “self-haunting”. These tropes are perpetuated, confirmed and even encouraged at the persuasion of powerful individuals reinforced by mainstream media content.
So, for example, the Hollywood films Team America: World Police (2004) and The Interview (2014), despite being satires of North Korea’s leaders, promote this idea of the North Korean leader and his senior advisers as mad. And Trump kept hammering at this with his regular references to Kim as a “madman”, as “crazy” and as a “little rocket man”.
North Korea’s prevailing international image of being mad is thus predominantly the creation of hostile external parties. But Pyongyang has also played up to it at times when it has been deemed useful – as the psychologist Dekleva said earlier in this article, it could be a useful tool of diplomacy. This is a theme explored by Niccolo Machiavelli in his book The Prince in 1517.
That said, what is perhaps most interesting is the extent to which recent US administrations and their allies appear to have come to believe the madness story – despite the fact that they are largely responsible for it. This has been the case with successive US administrations – but whether they genuinely believe it, or perpetuate it because it is convenient to their wider foreign policy ambitions to do so, remains to be seen.