North Korea has drawn international opprobrium with its nuclear and missile tests. Can its leader, Kim Jong-un, win the respect he craves?


An undated photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in an undisclosed location, released by the North Korean Central News Agency on 3 September 2017 (EPA-EFE/KCNA)

Below three News-Decoder correspondents with experience in Asia take stock of geopolitics and global security after North Korea tested a nuclear weapon and launched a missile over Japan. For our “decoder” on the Koreas, click here.

“The scope for miscalculations and accidents is huge.”

Alan Wheatley

If there were an easy way to defuse the nuclear threat from North Korea, diplomats would have found it long ago.

Kim Jong-un craves the respect that comes from being recognized not as a fat, maniacal dictator said to execute generals for falling asleep in his presence but as the leader of a potent nuclear power.

The unpalatable truth, assuming Trump is not reckless enough to launch a preemptive attack on Pyongyang, is that Kim is well on the way to achieving his goal. Perhaps only China could bring Kim to heel by cutting off energy and food supplies — not that a famine in the late 1990s made Kim’s father blink.

Xi Jinping clearly finds the Young Leader distasteful, as Max Baucus, a former U.S. ambassador to Beijing, told the BBC. Two countries that China used to describe as being as close as lips and teeth are now barely on speaking terms.

But China is clearly opposed to regime change, which would probably trigger a flood of refugees into northeastern China and, if it ushers in Korean reunification, could even lead to U.S. troops being stationed on China’s doorstep. So no solution is in sight.

The scope for miscalculations and accidents is huge — and underestimated by global financial markets.


“… a highly calculating individual who is succeeding in his primary goals.”

Jane Macartney

A view is commonly expressed that North Korea’s Kim Jung-un must be unhinged. His actions tell a very different story.

They show a highly calculating individual who is succeeding in his primary goals: keeping his adversaries on the defensive and forcing them to take him seriously.

Indeed, the third-generation of the Kim dynasty is being taken very seriously, prompting yet another special meeting of the United Nations Security Council, with sanctions agreed even by his few friends, in response to the missile test that he personally authorized and which crossed northern Japan.

He says this is a practice run for launches towards the U.S. Pacific territory – and military base – of Guam.

The young Kim’s calculation is that the further he pushes the United States, the more likely Washington will be to regard him and his country as a serious power and to recognize his nuclear capability. He knows China doesn’t like him, and that it would prefer his distasteful regime to chaos and war on its border. So far things are going his way.

He knows that Guam is a red line for Washington. He probably doesn’t want to cross that line, but the closer he comes, the more nervous become leaders from Beijing to Russia to Japan.

And the greater the chance that the United States will be ready to sit down for talks, thus giving North Korea the international recognition — and security — it craves.


“Kim Jong-un would enter any denuclearization talks bolstered by bargaining chips.”

Jim Wolf

What may have been North Korea’s most provocative missile test yet also may turn out to be its most successful on the global chess board as seen from Pyongyang.

In hurling an intermediate-range missile over Japan last week, the reclusive state sent multiple messages.

First, it clearly wasn’t knuckling under to U.S. President Donald Trump, who had vowed earlier in August to unleash “fire and fury” on the North if it threatened the United States. Instead, Pyongyang described the missile used in the overflight as designed to carry  a nuclear warhead across Japan.

This was key. Previous such flight paths over Japan had been cast as satellite launches. And the North announced plans for more missile tests in the Pacific despite a longstanding United Nations ban on them — foreshadowing more sophisticated arms, with greater range and better targeting capabilities.

In response to the latest test, Trump sounded a refrain uttered by all U.S. presidents since at least 1998 — that all options are on the table in response to Pyongyang’s UN-banned programs, including military force.

But based on the capabilities North Korea has already shown, the risks of preemptive military action against Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, are universally considered unacceptable, notably to U.S. regional allies Japan and South Korea.

Though the U.N. Security Council branded the August 29 test “outrageous,”  no new economic sanctions were in the offing.  Previous ones have failed to block the North from building nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them.

Veto-wielding council members China and Russia maintain U.S. military activity in the region was partly to blame for the increase in tensions, and urged negotiations.

What seems increasingly clear is that Kim Jong-un would enter any new denuclearization talks, should they eventually come about, bolstered by bargaining chips he has established on the ground — and bent on keeping the nuclear arsenal that he sees as critical to his survival.

Alan Wheatley is an economics writer and editor based in London, and a founding editor of InFacts. Until recently, he was Reuters’s global economics correspondent, reporting from more than 40 countries and living in London, Frankfurt, Paris, New York, Washington, Tokyo, Singapore and Beijing.

Jane Macartney worked as a foreign correspondent for The Times and Reuters. She was the Times correspondent in China for six years and lived in Japan, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, Singapore, Hong Kong and London when working for Reuters.

Jim Wolf was a correspondent for AP-Dow Jones, AFP, Jane’s Defence Weekly and Reuters for nearly 40 years, based in New York, Paris, Bangkok and Washington.

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