How a crazy, nuke-obsessed Kim Jong-un might actually be good for America

Is Kim Jong-un the Doctor Evil of the modern age? Are we really, seriously, back in the game of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads?
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor

There is no tangible evidence that North Korea's young Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un, is actually crazy. In fact, there's very little tangible evidence at all about North Korea's new First Secretary of the Workers' Party slash First Chairman of the National Defence Commission slash Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army slash Chairman of the Central Military Commission slash Marshall of the Republic slash husband slash father.

We don't even know for sure if Kim-the-younger is 28, 29, or 30. We know even less about Jong-un's wife, Ri Sol-ju, except that the marriage was apparently a hastily arranged affair set up by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il from his death bed.

What we do know is that a young man roughly between the ages of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears — with absolute control over the fourth largest army in the world and the world's largest submarine fleet — has declared his intention to nuke the United States.

He certainly wouldn't be the first young Generation Y male with an anger management problem, but he is the only one with a real chance of becoming a nuclear power.

It's easy to dismiss the North Korean leaders, whether Jong-il or Jong-un, as Looney Tunes

After all, we've all heard of Kim Jong-il's penchant for American movies and his Elvis obsession. But Kim Jong-il managed a huge military build-up for Korea, and while Jong-un did have the advantage of being Jong-il's hand-picked successor, he did manage to hang onto and consolidate his power, all before the age of 30.

The North Korean story is actually quite amazing. If you want further background, I recommend you read the briefing I wrote for Counterterrorism Magazine last year, Spotlight: North Korea.

For a feet-on-the-ground look at what North Korea is like today, I strongly recommend you read Sophie Schmidt's fascinating account of the trip she took to North Korea last year with her father, Google chairman Eric Schmidt, and former Ambassador Bill Richardson.

So where does all this leave us? Is Kim Jong-un the Doctor Evil of the modern age? Are we really, seriously, back in the game of intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads?

The fact is, North Korea is a viable threat on at least three separate levels

First, the nation is actively involved in cyberwarfare and cybercrime. As I've been saying for years, and which the US government is now beginning to articulate as well, cybercrime and cyberwar are huge national security threats.

North Korea is problematic here because not only is it using cyberattacks for political reasons, it's also decided that systematized cybercrime can be a good source of Western currency. For a nation essentially off-the-grid financially, cybercrime is the goose that keeps on laying the golden egg.

North Korea is also a viable threat because if its sizable conventional military. The Kims have never fully accepted the bifurcation of Korea into North and South, and have long made grumbling noises of crossing the 38th parallel.

South Korea is the world's 15th largest economy, with a GDP something north of a trillion dollars. By contrast, North Korea has a GDP somewhere in the range of $12-28 billion, which puts its total economy somewhere in the range between companies Sara Lee and Staples. South Korea's Samsung alone brings in fifteen times the annual cash of all of North Korea.

Were the North to attack the South, it would cause economic devastation to South Korea and ripple-effects across the globe. And of course, the US would be pulled into the battle, since our taxpayers have long paid for South Korea's defense, even as South Korea's industry has ungratefully done its best to compete against our own companies.

This leads us to the nuclear question: can North Korea build a nuke? Unfortunately, the answer to that is a definite "probably". Too many nuclear experts and too much nuclear material has been on the world's underground markets since the demise of the Soviet Union, and it's entirely likely that North Korea has been in the market for years.

Whether, of course, they can put the whole thing together, then build a long-range, ocean-crossing delivery vehicle, and then be suicidal enough to completely ignore the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) to try to nuke an American city, is a much bigger question.

Most leaders in most nations are both too sane and too well aware of their reliance on a world economy to flip the nuclear switch. That's why we've been pretty much mutant zombie and giant lizard-free since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But Kim Jong-un is not most leaders. His nation is almost completely disconnected from the outside world. His entire nation could on the far side of the moon for all of his country's interaction with the world's economy.

Keep reading. This is where this starts to get good...

The youngest Kim may or may not be crazy in a padded-cell and hallucinations kind of way, but he has shown evidence of ruthlessness in his quest to consolidate his power. The key question is whether he's more of a regional annoyance, like Saddam Hussein or Muammar al-Gaddafi, or whether he's a big bad, like Adolf Hitler or Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin.

If young Kim is a proto-big-bad today, he could be a thorn in our side for a very long time

Fidel Castro was only 33 when he became Prime Minister of Cuba back in the 1950s. He held onto power for 55 years. It's entirely possible that Kim Jong-un could be his own, personal Axis of Evil for most of this century.

All of this brings me back to the original premise of this story, that a crazy, nuke-obsessed Kim Jong-un might actually be good for America.

Look, I — like most sane people — would much prefer a world where the leader of North Korea was much more concerned about his Klout rating and Facebook fan page than attacking all of Western civilization. It would be much better for everyone if he'd decide it was more fun to hold big parties, invite second- and third-tier stars, and appear on some reality TV shows.

But that's probably not going to be the case. The new Kimster had the opportunity to change the personality of North Korea, to make it more of a citizen of the world, but instead, decided to double down on his grandfather's and father's policies of Juche, which, at least in spirit, means "us against the world".

Say what you will about the old Soviet Union, but it sure had a way of focusing our attention.

There was a tangible, credible, easily identifiable threat — and our military and our politicians recognized it as such.

Even though American politicians have always — always — been self-obsessed, selfish, back-biting, in-fighting, partisans of limited patriotism, when a real, credible threat has faced the United States, they've generally been willing to put aside partisanship, at least for the important stuff.

But things have gone off the rails ever since the Soviets decided that they wanted to get out of the crazy evil business and into the much more profitable international anti-malware market. American politicians haven't been able to focus on an external enemy and instead, have done their level best to hollow out America from within.

Take this sequester idea; it boggles the mind how this was the one thing Congress could agree upon: Their brilliant plan was, because they couldn't come to an agreement at the time, that they'd set up a time bomb so a later Congress would have to come to an agreement, because otherwise, the results would be just too terrible to live with.

Seriously? This is how we run the greatest nation on Earth?

The sequester guts all sorts of programs (not necessarily a bad idea), including a lot of our military defense (not necessarily a good idea).

But let me ask you this: Could the sequester have flied back in the days of duck-and-cover? Would Congress have let our defense slide into the ocean when there was always an impending nuclear threat from the Ruskies?

No, of course not.

But now, we've all but forgotten the very real threats out there. We ignore the need to bulk up our cyberdefense because (and this, too, boggles the mind), our corporate leaders have asked the President to take a softer touch when it comes to cybersecurity.

Seriously. You can't make this stuff up.

We've killed Saddam and we've killed Osama. Sure we've just come out of the longest war in US history, but we're not really all that worried about things here at home. We're still buying our iPhones and iPads, and we're all just a little disappointed that the South Korean Samsung Galaxy S4 isn't more exciting.

While America most assuredly has its enemies, both outside our borders and within, they're amorphous. Terrorists and cybercriminals don't have faces. They don't have names. They're not super villains, and they don't unite the selfish and the partisan.

But super villains, the Hitlers, the Stalins, to some degree the Castros, these are the faces that unite our defense. When we're able to point to a Big Bad, we're all able to focus on it together, and then, sometimes, we'll actually work together.

So while I'd really prefer that North Korea's Kim Jong-un would take a chill pill, that we could set up some sort of 20-something leader exchange and swap Kim Jung-un for Mark Zuckerberg — Zuck would certainly get North Korea out of its isolationist funk — the reality is that Kim Jong-un may be more than just bluster.

He may be the pudgy face of our next super villain, he could be a credible threat, and he might actual inspire America's politicians to put aside partisanship and work together for a change.

Nah. Who am I kidding? Right now, I'm convinced there are politicians in Washington working hard to come up with something even more epically stupid than the sequester.

Let's just hope the Chinese can talk some sense into Kim Jong-un. After all, given how much we owe them, these days, the Chinese have more of a vested interest in America's continued well-being (and ability to make regular installment payments) than even our own politicians.

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