North Korea’s nuclear message to Kim Jong Il’s own hardliners

When a man walks down the street firing a gun over your head, it is difficult not take it personally. When a dictator with a million-strong army and a well documented dislike for the “imperialist aggressors” of the West, lets off a nuclear weapon, it feels much the same. This sentiment informed foreign reaction to North Korea’s nuclear test yesterday, from Washington to Tokyo to Helsinki: how dare he do this to us?

“North Korea’s attempts to develop nuclear weapons, as well as its ballistic missile programme, constitute a threat to international peace and security,” President Obama said. But there is another way of thinking about North Korea and its dictator, Kim Jong Il, just as there is about the armed loser who shoots up the neighbourhood. It’s not about us at all – it’s about him.

The popular view of Mr Kim, as a megalomaniac poised to rain fiery death on all who displease him, is worse than a misunderstanding – it plays into his hands. Everything he does, all his threats and bluster, his merciless oppression of his own people, and the elaborately ludicrous personality cult around him, springs not from strength, but from profound and irremediable weakness.

Mr Kim leads the last Stalinist dictatorship in the world. He makes the Cubans and Vietnamese look like thrusting innovators. Politically, he has been cut off by the tide and is sitting on a sandbank without a life jacket, watching the waves rise.

Even the best-equipped spies cannot see the workings of North Korea’s internal politics, but there are good reasons for believing that the 67-year old Mr Kim is more than usually vulnerable at present. We know with some certainty that he was gravely ill last summer, with something like a stroke. Now there are signs that he is preparing one of his three sons to succeed him.

Hereditary successions in oppressive monarchies are often moments of uncertainty, when courtiers compete to be more on-message, and when the old king feels most susceptible and afraid. Yesterday’s test may have been a calculated attempt to raise the stakes in negotiations with the new US Administration – or it may have been Mr Kim’s effort to win favour with his own military hardliners, the only people who can guarantee his family’s hold on power.

Confrontation of the kind in which North Korea specialises is the last refuge of the politically bankrupt – but it is a failure of imagination to to award Mr Kim the domestic prestige that he seeks. Any man with a gun is dangerous, but he is easier to deal with if his weakness is recognised and not mistaken for strength.

Richard Lloyd Parry, Asia editor.