Missile Launch Doesn’t Make NoKo’s Kim Jong-un a Dud

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KCNA VIA KNS / AFP / Getty Images

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, visits the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground, apparently an amusement park, under construction in Pyongyang.

There’s a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Jack David saying latest North Korean missile launch proves Kim Jong-un won’t be a reformer and that — basically — anyone who still believes that is a dupe.

That’s specious logic in the worst, narrow-minded national security way.

North Korea’s new leader is pursuing some very interesting economic moves, and those do suggest he’ll attempt some Deng Xiaoping-like reforms.  They won’t come fast, however.  Consolidation of his power necessarily comes first.

And no, it’s not like he’s suddenly tamed the tiger that is the DPRK military, which became hugely powerful during his old man’s reign – so powerful that it’s conceivable they could dump him if they felt he wasn’t doing right by the military.

This is the common fate of the would-be reforming successor son: they can’t exactly rewrite the power rule book the minute they get in, and to make anything happen economically, they typically have to keep giving the military what it wants.

Then there is the more general problem of the reformer in such a system:  they must appear strong to the outside – stronger even than their non-reforming predecessor.  This is the old “only Nixon can go to China” logic.

Why?  Imagine the impossibility of trying to loosen up domestically and curtailing the military confrontation stance with the outside world at the same time.

Kim may well not prove up to the task of changing things inside DPRK, but the mere fact that he continues the missile/nuclear program paths doesn’t rule that out whatsoever.  That would be a simplistic and premature evaluation of the situation.  And getting unduly freaky about the missile launch only plays into the hands of the military hardliners in the country.

But David is right in this sense: carrots regarding the nuke program and missiles will change nothing. Even if KJE goes down the Deng path internally, he’ll need to maintain a super-strong face to the outside world. That much is guaranteed.

My big problem with David’s analysis is that he’s presenting merely the military angle as the entire story on Kim. Again, that’s sadly myopic.

We’ve waited a long time for this opportunity with DPRK.  Just because it’s comfortable for us to believe the same old, same old shouldn’t blind us to the entire picture that is emerging with KKim Jong-un’s nascent rule.  We need to be smarter than that.