NORTH KOREA'S Kim Jong-un has whipped his country's military into a war-like lather. His people think war with the West has begun. At least three internal pressures help us understand why Jong-un is sounding increasingly bellicose. He is endeavoring to combat suspicions about his inexperience as dictator, to solidify his control over--and his support within--the North Korean People's Army, and to diminish focus on widespread malnutrition and civil rights abuses by the regime.
Self-preservation is a powerful motivation for any dictator. For a young one perceived as immature and weak, the need to prove otherwise can lead to extreme actions, such as attacks on South Korea or even on the U.S. military. While a nuclear attack is threatened, it is unlikely. Nevertheless, if push comes to shove and Jong-un is at risk of being deposed, the 29-year-old could take down the entire nation with him through a "heroic" attack. Indeed, perceptions of that possibility within his regime help deter challenges to his leadership. Were it not for Pres. Ronald Reagan's commitment--made on March 23, 1983--to build an extensive antimissile defense system, we would not he in as strong a position as we are today to ensure that Jong-un's rhetoric avoids becoming reality.
The North Korean People's Army consists of about 20% of all men 17 to 54. That is the highest percentage of military personnel per capita of any nation in the world. There is one North Korean People's Army soldier for every 25 citizens in the country. The army represents one of the few of secure employment and food that exists in this economically mined Communist state.
Within North Korea, considerable prestige attends association with the People's Army. It is the largest, most powerful constituency within the state and no dictator of the country can remain in power unless its ranks are not merely satisfied, but convinced, that the leader--who is the military commander--has the wherewithal to protect the army's interests and advance the country's goals of retaking South Korea and diminishing U.S. power and influence. Signs of weakness or a lack of resolve in advancing those interests and goals would invite a coup d'etat.
Like his father, Jong-un maintains a highly oppressive regime that ferrets out, arrests, incarcerates, and executes any who dissent from the demands of the state or show what could he perceived as signs of disloyalty. North Korea maintains one of the largest networks of political...