Since it’s very inception, North Korea’s nuclear weapons-development program has primarily been about changing North Korea’s footing in the geopolitical theater. Kim Jong-un believes that having an arsenal of nuclear weapons will force states like the U.S. to approach his nation with more peer-like respect, as one of the few nuclear powers on the globe. Kim’s hunt for nukes has never been about using them as much as it’s been about being able to threaten their use, and to use those threats as leverage to improve trade and political relations between the world and his small nation, whose entire GDP makes up only a fifteenth of what the U.S. spends on defense alone.
And now, thanks to public posturing by Russia and China on North Korea’s behalf, they’ve seemingly adopted a new strategy that runs counter to their repeated threats of nuclear annihilation: playing the victim.
In public statements made over the course of the past few weeks, Russia has portrayed the developing situation on the Korean Peninsula as “international bullying,” blaming the United States for inciting the North Koreans with its military presence and accusing the American government of trying to intimidate the small nation.
“We need to act in a joined-up way, (and) strengthen the system of international guarantees with the help of international law and with the help of the U.N. Charter,” Putin said last week. “We need to return to dialogue with North Korea and stop scaring it and find ways to resolve these problems peacefully.”
“The combative rhetoric coupled with reckless muscle-flexing has led to a situation where the whole world seriously is now wondering whether there’s going to be a war or not,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told the U.N. Security Council earlier this month. “One ill-thought-out or misinterpreted step could lead to the most frightening and lamentable consequences.”
This depiction of the U.S. roughing up the little guy doesn’t seem to logically follow the rhetoric coming from within Kim’s regime, things like showing videos of North Korean nukes obliterating American cities during their equivalent of a 4th of July parade, or issuing repeated threats of conducting pre-emptive nuclear strikes on U.S. bases on allied land in South Korea and Japan. From every objective viewpoint, North Korea’s posturing has been aggressive and often unwarranted. While other nations interact through veiled threats amid polite conversation, North Korea has long skipped that political courtesy and defaulted to exclaiming that they’ll wipe America’s “evil empire” off the map.
That is, until this week, during which North Korea sent letters of protest to the U.S. Congress and other nations enacting further sanctions on the aggressive state, referring to the sanctions as a “heinous act against humanity” and arguing in favor of loosening restrictions on trade. Couple this with North Korea’s recent unsubstantiated accusations that the CIA and South Korean Intelligence Service conspired with a former North Korean lumberjack to assassinate their supreme leader, and a PR strategy begins to emerge. North Korea is no longer trying to depict themselves as a military competitor with the U.S., it now hopes to illicit international support through sympathy—or pity. It’s unlikely they’d care which.
“As everybody knows, the Americans have gestured (toward) dialogue,” North Korea’s Deputy U.N. Ambassador Kim In Ryong told reporters on Friday. “But what is important is not words, but actions. The rolling back of the hostile policy toward DPRK is the prerequisite for solving all the problems in the Korean Peninsula. Therefore, the urgent issue to be settled on Korean Peninsula is to put a definite end to the U.S. hostile policy toward DPRK, the root cause of all problems.”
The root cause of all problems. That’s an important sentence to note.
North Korea’s new statements are part of a concerted effort to change the narrative on the Korean Peninsula, and as silly as that may seem, it’s entirely possible that they will. The Russian media machine is churning out headlines that paint Americans as transgressors that illegally overstep their bounds in Syria and North Korea. They’ve even begun using the same perception management techniques put to use in the 2016 presidential election, and North Korea seems to be aware of that.
Combined with the anti-Trump sentiment held throughout much of the European Union’s leadership, concerns about the future of NATO, and an ongoing investigation into President Trump’s staff potentially colluding with the Russians in order to get into office, and you have the recipe for a world population that could potentially be ready to change sides on this subject, as the narrative continues to point toward this being about American aggression rather than North Korean.
It’s impossible to know whether or not Russia intended for Kim’s regime to get on board with their list of talking points, but it has become clear that Putin is seeking warmer relations with the isolated country.
China, though publicly supporting a denuclearized Korean Peninsula, has also made repeated statements indicating that the U.S. shares fault for the current predicament. China is admittedly a strained ally of Kim’s government, but their relations remain significantly warmer that those maintained between China and the U.S.
Ultimately, the loudest voices out of the Pacific will continue to be China’s and Russia’s, neither of which would benefit from a conclusion to the North Korean standoff that sees the United States and its allies taking military action. Logically, they’d be invested in keeping the peace, and in hurting U.S. foreign interests in the region however they could.
That isn’t to say that military action is the necessary or only potential outcome of this scenario, but the threat of it has given North Korea and some nations friendly to their cause the ammunition they need to launch a preemptive PR campaign, rather than a military one.
The question is, will the people of the world buy it?
Image courtesy of the BBC