Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
There is something that instinctively scares us when we see slavish military synchronicity.
It awakens deep fear, an inescapable conditioning that tells us such an excess of squeaky precise coordination won’t end well.
Kim Jong Un may not intend us to read him this way, although much of his behavior suggests that he does.
Of course, what is really getting under our skin, beyond the parades of soldiers and civilians, is that this third-generation dictator still only in his 30s is on the verge of nuclearizing his intercontinental ballistic missiles – and if something isn’t done soon, he might make good on his promise and lob one at the US.
If he does that, the gloves come off and the Korean Peninsula is blasted backward 70 years into regional warfare and instability.
No general worth his salt ever gambled that his adversary wasn’t capable of the unthinkable. But what if this worst-case scenario paranoia is Kim’s real problem? What if he is trapped in his own imagined view of what the US might do should he back down?
When he weighs the world calculating his next move, for he is no madman, does he eye Moammar Gadhafi’s grisly end in Libya – as North Korean state media has hinted numerous times at the “tragic consequences” of giving up a “treasured sword for frustrating outsiders’ aggression” – and shun compromise, or is there another demon burdening his brain?
I was in Libya as Gadhafi’s regime was coming down and met with some of his top advisers – including his son Saif.
They were sure the West wouldn’t let them down. Britain in particular, they thought, would hold their corner. Not only had they cooperated with the UK in capturing terror suspects, Gadhafi Sr. had handed over all his nuclear know-how.
For them, it was supposed to be the ultimate deal: rehabilitation in to the international community. And for several years it worked, more or less.
Per capita, Libyan GDP rose to the highest in Africa. The country’s single biggest impediment to progress was Gadhafi himself. He was alive and rich, albeit defanged.
But then came the Arab Spring street protests to topple the Great Leader. As Gadhafi resisted the rebel attacks, NATO – and his old allies in the UK – picked a side and bombed Libyan forces.
That’s when I was meeting with his lieutenants. He didn’t know it at the time, but his past belligerence was like a target on the shoulder of stag. That stag keeps running, even though the bullet has pierced its heart.
When the bombs began to fall, Gadhafi was already dead – he just didn’t know it yet.
If it’s the Gadhafi story running through Kim’s mind, then getting to a point where we can start dialing down the rhetoric – never mind throttling Kim’s military machine down a gear or two – is going to be very complex, undoubtedly involving intermediaries.
What will further complicate the attempts at diplomacy will be finding intermediaries that the North Korean leader can trust. But seeing as the two most-likely candidates – Russia and China – just backed the unanimous UN resolution for greater sanctions against North Korea, that door seems shut for now.
Gadhafi lived long enough to see the finer edifices of his empire smashed, overrun and looted by angry citizens.
Shorn of his deterrents, does Kim fear a similar fate? At what point of international compromise does he calculate his population will turn?
Gadhafi was finally pulled from a concrete drainage tunnel where he was hiding under a highway; the rage of generations of his countrymen was vented upon him.
For more than 30 years, he’d kept the country in line through fear, patronage and intimidation. With NATO’S help all of that was gone. His only defense, his golden handgun, was pulled from him, landing in the hands of a teenager.
Under Kim, North Korea’s scientists and army officers are treated to a better way of life: privileged access, for example, to the country’s newly constructed ski center.
Role and rank in North Korea earn rights in much the same way Gadhafi rewarded his henchmen. But, as I witnessed in Libya, when the chips are down, most either turn to the other side or run.
If Kim’s calculation is that Gadhafi was profligate and nowhere near as as close as North Korea appears to be to getting long-range nukes when he threw in the towel, he may simply be preparing himself for the final sprint to completion.
His mind could be made up that he can perfect a deterrent before his enemies deter him.
Gadhafi had a lot riding on his deal with the world. Kim would have a lot more if he chose to trust US offers to talk – and, so far, his interlocutors are making it clear he does not.
Indeed Kim is blustering all the way to deterrent, promising the US an angry flurry of his missiles in response to tougher sanctions.
But if Kim had been considering his options and coming round to the idea of some new diplomatic fulcrum, then President Trump’s latest threat of fire and fury will, if nothing else, set him off balance.
As it is, Kim isn’t shifting one iota. Indeed, he seems set for a showdown of his own making.
Gadhafi was egotistical enough to believe he could win. Kim is calculating he could just lose. And that means for any coming fight, he’ll need all the synchronized soldiers he can muster.