Former US official: North Korean leader is one of the more pathetic heads of state

Chris Hill with a North Korean official in better times
Chris Hill with a North Korean official in better times
Image: AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency
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North Korea is known for its brinksmanship behavior. But its actions in recent weeks has set off more alarm bells than usual. It has steadily ratcheted up its rhetoric after declaring a “state of war” against South Korea. Earlier this week, it blocked South Koreans from entering an industrial zone at the border between North and South Korea, a move it hadn’t pursued since 2009. Yesterday, North Korea told foreign diplomats that it could not guarantee their safety if there is an armed conflict. And it looks like they may conduct another missile test.

The world has been trying to make sense of North Korea’s actions and what it says about its young leader, Kim Jong-un. Quartz asked one of the few Americans who have dealt with North Korea, Christopher Hill, for his take on the situation. Hill was head of the US delegation on the Six Party nuclear talks on North Korea and also served as Ambassador to South Korea. He is now dean of the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

Quartz: When Kim Jong-un first came to power, there was some hope that he would be more open. But now that has totally changed. What happened?

Christopher Hill: That went away with the first missile test. I think its pretty clear the army is in charge of that country and to some extent, he is just a symbol. He’s got a lot of people around him to deal with. I think he’s very much of the system there. The North Korean people have not really embraced the guy so they are showcasing him as a great military leader standing up to United States. Now having started that dance, how do you end it?

Q: Do you take this more seriously than their past actions?

CH: I take it seriously since they are going right up to the line. They are also fairly clumsy so it’s easy for them to stumble over the line. That means a risk of some kind of incident. The question will be how do the South Koreans manage it. They are very smart. This has gone on for a long time and they are sick of it. So it’s dangerous in that sense. I don’t think it’s serious in that they are going to launch a missile or anything. But these people live in isolation and have no idea what the world thinks of them. To understand why North Korea does what it does, you have to understand that they don’t have a sophisticated view of the rest of world.

Q: How do you think the new South Korean President Park Geun-hye is handling it?

CH: They are not going to push her around. She is not a hardliner who can’t figure out a crisis. She’s a very sober-minded person and I have great respect for her calmness. I don’t think we need to fear she will handle things wrongly.

Q: How should the US react?

CH: I think they are doing the right thing in trying to control the escalation and put onus on them. You don’t want to see North Korea and the US involved in a pissing contest. But it’s appropriate not to blink. Our exercise plan in defense of South Korea includes naval, air and land elements. It could’ve been a problem if the U.S. had canceled the air elements out of fear North Korea would be offended. It would’ve signaled that their bluster is working. It would’ve also been a bad signal to the South Koreans that we are not committed to them.

Q: Do you think North Korea will get anything out of this?

CH: Nobody will give them a nickel. They worsened their strategic situation. And they’ve made it worse for China. We’ve now thickened up our missile defense in a way no one could’ve foreseen a couple months ago. That’s very upsetting to the Chinese. It’s also a myth that North Korean bluster gets them something. They really haven’t gotten anything.

Q: How does Kim Jong-un look after this?

CH: I’ve known a lot of world leaders and this is really one of the more pathetic examples of a leader I’ve ever seen. Unless he’s going to embark on some huge economic reform program, which I doubt. I really don’t think he’s going to benefit from this.

Q: North Korea is already isolated but does this hurt them even more, especially with China?

CH: There hasn’t been a sea change in China but there is a shift. I think China is increasingly thinking these guy are bad for business and bad for China’s future. [Chinese President] Xi Jinping has a lot of other things on his mind domestically but they seem  angry from this. So the movement away from North Korea will continue. Of course, North Korea’s demise is something they don’t want because it’s a victory for the US . But in the long-term move of China having a bigger and bigger place in the world community, North Korea isn’t good for that.

Q: How do you think this ends?

CH: It looks like they are planning for another missile test and then things will probably calm down. But they have gone further than they ever have before and they are certainly painting themselves in a corner. Still, North Korea has the ability to reverse propaganda like no other country. I remember I was annoyed about something the KCNA [North Korean news agency] had said and my interlocutor said don’t worry, they will change it tomorrow.