Kim Jong Un's Shoes
If you can mentally put yourself in Kim Jong-un's shoes, once you are aware of the constraints he faces you will understand why the South Koreans aren't getting terribly worried about how the current round of threats will end. Far from being crazy, KJU is acting rationally for someone in his position, and he's likely to get what he wants without South Korea or the world erupting into a sea of fire.
The first fact of life for young Kim is that he really isn't running things. He is unable to command and be obeyed on his own because he is too young and lacks a depth of history with all the key constituencies that make up the North Korean regime. We're talking about something much closer to a gangster alliance than a constitutional state when it comes to understanding the dynamics of the North Korean government.
Generals and party appartchiks as power centers abound, each in control of some vital resource, be they guns, sources of revenue (for example the prized counterfeiting and drug operations that bring in covert hard currency), or mass organizations. The people who run these operations must be appeased, bought off, made to keep identifying their own welfare with the continued power of the Kim Dynasty.
KJU, who was thrust into office, has no history of dealing with these party and military satraps the way his late father did - a mixture of lavish banquets and bribes, especially Western luxury goods from fine cognac to Mercedes Benzes, and harsher measures, up to purging and execution. Kim Jong Un's aunt, Kim Kyong-hu, and her husband, Jang Song-taek, are operating as de facto regents for an heir unable to handle the responsibilities of office. During the dictatorship of Kim Jong-il, Ms. Kim and her husband functioned at high levels of the government and party, and they know where the bodies are buried, when it comes to vulnerabilities and needs of the other members of the North Korean power elite. Quoting the UK Daily Mail:
Miss Kim, daughter of the Eternal President of Kim Il-sung, who oversaw the inception of North Korea in 1948, is the director of the party's Organisation and Guidance Department. She is also the sister of the country's second leader and now aunt of its third.
Her husband, meanwhile, is vice-chairman of the National Defence Commission. He is also the regime's key link with China.
According to The Telegraph however, their main role is to help defend the dynasty by pushing the young leader's image as a powerful military figure. There are apparently concerns he is not trusted by some of his generals.
KJU's sole claim to legitimacy as the leader of North Korea is hereditary succession -- obviously, a concept found nowhere in the history of communist theory, but found abundantly in Korea's past, which was dominated by Confucian monarchies. Confucius held, among other precepts, that filial piety was a supreme virtue, and that the family itself was a model for the state, with the wise monarch at the top playing the role of father for the entire society. Veneration of age, that is respect for those older than you, is also a highly esteemed Confucian principle.
So young Kim Jong-un, whose rank as the third son of Kim Jong-il would normally not lead to his succession as communist-Confucian monarch. (Note: The Chinese communist regime, which once vilified Confucianism as a vile feudal remnant of China's past, has also made peace with the foremost political philosopher of the Eastern Hemisphere, and now sponsors hundreds of Confucius Institutes overseas, as language and cultural training institutions.) One older brother was said to be too effeminate to be named successor, while the other disqualified himself from a leadership position by being apprehended trying to enter Japan on a false passport, in order to vacation at Tokyo Disneyland, embarrassing the regime sufficiently to ensure a bleak political future.
Which brings us to the overwhelming uncomfortable reality that must dominate the thinking of KJU and his regents: the leaders of North Korea know quite well that they run a failed economy that cannot feed itself, and offer a totalitarian culture so sterile it doesn't even have any appeal for the pampered leadership itself. When the power elite is reduced to false identities adopted to partake of Disneyland, or for that matter thinks that Dennis Rodman is a weighty character worthy of an international diplomatic high profile, that is an abject confession of deep envy of what the West has (see also: cognac and Mercedes).
The only natural course for the KJU regency to follow, in order to assure the survival of their dynasty, would be to venerate the departed Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-il bu using the very same tactics they used to extort money from the West: periods of mischief-making, grotesquely inflated threatening rhetoric, and even periodic bursts of artillery fire, rocket-firing, and other such bellicosity aimed at extracting food aid, energy, and recognition from the real powers of the world - the ones that can feed their people and offer all the trappings of mass culture so lacking at home in North Korea.
We are in the North Korean version of the High Holy Days right now - the anniversary of KJU's accession passed this week, and the 100th anniversary of the birth of dynast founder Kim Il-sung approaches on Monday. So this is obviously the time to honor the ancestors by engaging in their sacred practices of saber rattling and extortion. This also helps solidify the support of the generals, the guys with all the guns, who like to be portrayed as fearsome, and who expect to be cut in for a large amount of the swag that results when the South Koreans, Americans, and maybe even the Chinese pony up valuable some resources in order to shut up the annoying threats and maybe delay nuclear proliferation.
And it is working. Secretary of State Kerry is currently in East Asia, urgently discussing what to do. If necessary, the North will fire one or two rockets on Monday, when the anniversary falls - respect for the Founder demands no less after all. But there's a good chance the old con game will work again, and that some resources will be tossed their way.