Francis Moriarty: While Kim looks, US can learn

PITTSFIELD — There are entire websites dedicated to photographs of North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un "looking at things." Most of the time, what he's looking at is almost impossible to determine. But inspect them closer and you'll discover one other feature of these odd images: It is also impossible to determine where Kim actually is.

When a person is thumbing his nose at his biggest supporter, threatening his neighbors and sticking a finger into the eye of the international community, being coy about his whereabouts is probably a smart move.

These photos also hint at something else relevant to coming up with any new way to deal with Kim. We'll get to that a little later.

The Trump administration, like others before it, has been trying to address Kim's belligerent regime by slapping economic sanctions on Pyongyang and prompting China to play the role of enforcer. This has always been a dubious strategy, but it has trundled on in the absence of any alternative to a war, conventional or nuclear, that would result in the deaths of millions.

But two events have just happened, and a third is about to occur, that make any sanctions approach involving China even more improbable than usual.

Mouse that roars

First, North Korea has launched a missile that flew over Japan. It followed that provocation with the explosion of what the defiant hermit state asserts was an underground hydrogen bomb blast. These are reasons for Pyongyang to feel pretty good about itself. This is its determined path to becoming, as in the title of a 1950s novel, the little mouse that roars. In its eyes, so far, so good.

Second, Beijing is preoccupied with internal affairs and is preparing for a pivotal 19th party congress tentatively set for Oct. 18. These gatherings occur only every five years and confirm both the country's leadership and the policies to be implemented. The jockeying for position is literally brutal.

At issue is the ever-pressing question of survival for the Chinese Communist party. It is the core belief of every dedicated party cadre, contained in an old revolutionary song, that without the Communist Party there is no new China. This means that survival of the party trumps every other consideration, including North Korea's nuclear brinksmanship.

China's president Xi Jinping is also further cementing his hold on power and, reportedly, attempting get his personal philosophy elevated to the same lofty status as that of the late leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. There are also longstanding rumors that Xi wants to continue his personal rule beyond a second five-year term to 10 years or even more.

These party gatherings occur only every five years and confirm both the country's leadership and the policies to be implemented. The jockeying for position is intense, even downright brutal. Not everyone is going sing Xi's praises and still face being bulldozed by his personal machinery.

This means China is right now far more focused on what's happening in Beijing than it is on the shenanigans, however worrisome, in Pyongyang.

Pressing Xi on North Korean sanctions at this moment is unlikely to produce results — not unless the Trump administration is willing to make some tradeoff so significant that Beijing simply could not refuse it. A concession on that scale appears very unlikely, especially while the Trump administration is simultaneously and confusingly - threatening trade reprisals against China.

The North Korean regime of Kim Jong-un understands all this. The timing of the missile firing and the alleged H-bomb blast were not random. Everything Kim and his comrades do is carefully calibrated, and that includes Kim's refusal so far to travel to Beijing for a meeting with Xi.

The prospect of a hydrogen bomb atop a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile capable of flying thousands of miles is a frightening development that is concentrating minds elsewhere. But there is no sign so far that these heightened concerns are leading to any new strategic approach.

Washington is rattling sabers and threatening a military response, at the same time saying it does not want war. The Trump administration is prodding China to do more, but it looks like more of the same albeit with added urgency.

In the search for a new theory of how to deal with North Korea, it's perhaps worth returning to those strange pictures of Kim looking at things because they hint at something far deeper.

Leninist monarch

Kim personal leadership position is insecure. He is very young to be the head of any nation. He has no military or scientific training yet he heads an autocracy that is reliant upon the military and wholly dedicated to nuclear weapons development. In a society with an ideology based on workers, he has never been a worker, nor does he even hold the title "engineer" that was once used as ideological cover for many Soviet Chinese communist party cadres.

Kim's position is hereditary, making him a Leninist monarch — an oxymoron if ever there were. Like monarchs elsewhere, he has cemented his genetic leadership by "disappearing" some close relatives. In the cruel Darwinian culture Kim inhabits, this is probably essential.

Kim's Jong-un's hold on power is fragile and needs frequent reaffirmation. Helping him to find a survival tool not involving mass destruction is at least one direction to consider.


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