For a long time, foreign intelligence services knew very little about the strange world of North Korea. Occasionally, its seismic monitors would detect rudimentary nuclear test signals in the mountains north of the capital, Pyongyang. Or military satellites would detect the launching of short and medium-range missiles, many of which failed spectacularly or were safely launched into the Pacific Ocean. But for the most part, the outside world suffered from what Donald Gregg, a former intelligence officer and US diplomat in South Korea, calls "the longest failure in the history of US espionage."
In 2017, we learned what we had missed Over the course of the year, Kim Jong Un, the youth and totalitarian leader of the outcast state, revealed an advanced capability to threaten the US homeland with a long-range, nuclear-tipped missile. . On July 4, he launched the first of several missiles capable of reaching Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago. In September, he tested what the US. UU They thought it was a nuclear warhead that would fit on top of one of those missiles; It was more powerful than bombs than the USA. UU They threw over Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the Second World War. And in the dark dawn of November 29, North Korea made a trial by fire with a missile capable of reaching Washington, DC and New York City. Its arc rose 10 times more than the International Space Station.
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Kim has the world's attention not only because of the threat to the United States. Henry Kissinger wrote that North Korea will continue with nuclear weapons "will seriously diminish the credibility of the US nuclear umbrella in Asia". The fear – especially after President Donald Trump suggested in his campaign that South Korea and Japan provide for their own defense – is that they will do so by developing their own nuclear weapons.
But if the world understands that it faces a new volatile threat, much of Kim and his arsenal remain a mystery. And what little we know, from South Korean sources and published reports, is not reassuring.
In addition to possessing up to 60 nuclear weapons that are scattered throughout the country in hard-to-follow mobile launchers, North Korea also has biological and chemical weapons, including anthrax and sarin gas. Its million-strong army is the fourth largest in the world and has trained thousands of rockets and artillery shells in South Korea, whose capital, Seoul, could be debris in a matter of hours. The North has also invested heavily in cyber weapons, computer systems piracy in South Korea, the United States and elsewhere.
From Kim, much of what has been published is not confirmed and disputed. You can be 33 or 35 years old. He probably attended school in Switzerland, perhaps pretending to be the son of an employee who works at the North Korean embassy in Bern. Your health is in doubt. He is a great smoker who can suffer from diabetes or gout. He is morbidly obese, carrying more than 300 pounds at 5 feet. 8 inches frame.
A physical element is an advantage: Kim looks like his grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founding father of the country and a divine figure for many North Koreans. The grandson has adopted the appearance and manners of the first Great Leader and expresses the same desire to control a reunified Korea, by force if necessary.
The Korean peninsula was a country until 1945, but today the population of the South, at 51 million, is more than double the North, and its per capita income 10 to 20 times higher. Two out of five North Koreans now have insufficient food, according to the U.N., which in 2014 concluded that the Kim regime had systematically violated human rights and committed crimes against humanity. It is believed that his concentration camp gulag contains more than 100,000 citizens.
For a dynastic leader, Kim does not seem to treasure the family. In 2013, less than two years after he took power after the death of his father Kim Jong Il, the son ordered the execution of his uncle and nominal regent, Jang Song Thaek. In February, the assassins used VX, a lethal nerve agent, to kill Kim's half brother, Kim Jong Nam, in the lobby of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.
How to deal with a dead dictator in becoming a nuclear power? The Trump administration seems insecure. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has pursued silent and seemingly ineffective diplomacy. Trump has got away with it, threatening extemporaneously with "fire and fury like never before seen in the world," and at the same time tweeting an incipient combination of insults and offers of friendship in Kim. In the U.N., he called him "rocket man".
Kim can find useful attention. The regime has encouraged the North Koreans to believe that the US. UU They will attack at any moment, remembering the devastation of the Korean War, which began when Kim's grandfather invaded the south and ended with 85% of the northern buildings destroyed by American bombers. A nuclear arsenal is justified as an effective deterrent to a new attack.
In short, in the 1990s, the search for the North to acquire that arsenal was carried by an agreement with the Clinton Administration. But Pyongyang resumed construction after President George W. Bush declared North Korea part of an "axis of evil" in 2002. And for Kim, the factors of personal survival in: the North Koreans have noticed that Muammar Gaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq were deposed after surrendering their nuclear programs.
Kim also has geography on his side. Given the limited space on the Korean Peninsula, 25 million South Koreans are within range of the artillery: an attack by the US. UU It could provoke retaliation by producing catastrophic civilian deaths even without the use of nuclear weapons. The preference of the South for negotiations is based on the ideal diaphanous of future reunification, an affirmative perspective on a human level, but probably not very soon. The Hermit Kingdom is the last Communist nation outside of Cuba, and China sees considerable value in preserving it as a buffer on its northeastern border against South Korea and the US troops there.
Given these realities, Trump – not a fan of multilateralism – has nonetheless been asking for a group effort, urging the Chinese, Russians, Japanese, South Koreans and anyone else to listen to help deal with Kim. China has the greatest influence, and there are indications that the application of economic sanctions may be increasing. But Kim recently turned his back on a high-level envoy from Beijing, and in the end, China's interests will remain divided.
The United States may have no choice but to live with Kim and a nuclear North Korea, while persuading their neighbors that they do not need their own arsenals. All of which could make the young dictator even more influential in the years to come.
Photograph by AP / Shutterstock