Mr Krushchev said, “We will bury you.”
I don’t subscribe to this point of view.
It’d be such an ignorant thing to do
If the Russians love their children too.

Sting released Russians in 1985, during the last period when we seriously contemplated nuclear war. Nikita Khrushchev had reportedly said “We will bury you!” to a group of Western ambassadors at a reception in Moscow in 1956, in the depths of the Cold War.

The real low point of nuclear fear came with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when President John F. Kennedy drew a red line on the deployment of Russian nuclear missiles in Cuba. Khrushchev backed down after 13 days of some pretty intense eyeballing.

The relevance of Krushchev’s threat is its rarity. Nuclear-armed nations tend to be circumspect in their choice of words, because, well, nobody really wants to use those things. So it should have been a much bigger deal than has been generally reported when, a week ago, an official spokesman of the North Korean regime said this:

“If they [the US and South Korea] try to ignite the spark of war, we will wipe out all of the invaders without a trace with our strong pre-emptive nuclear strike.”

The key word is “pre-emptive”. Kennedy threatened to destroy the Russian nukes before they could be landed in Cuba, on the basis that the US would not accept that circumstance to occur.  That is pre-emption: the execution of an act of war in order to prevent an anticipated hostile act from happening. Major powers like the US and USSR have historically reserved pre-emptive rights to themselves. North Korea adopting the language of pre-emption is a major step.

The Trump administration has been raising the pressure on North Korea, declaring that its patience is nearly at an end and that, if China doesn’t fix this problem, the US will. Trump’s strategy, so far as one can ever discern strategy from his tweeting, seems to be one of aggressive bluff-calling, taking a leaf out of the Kennedy playbook.  

Presumably the theory is that, like all other tin-pot dictators, Kim Jong-un will fold when he finally realises that you can’t beat the US of A in a game of nuclear chicken. After all, this strategy worked with Colonel Gaddafi and Slobodan Milosevic among others, and even the Evil Empire of the USSR wasn’t ultimately willing to call the American bluff over Cuba (rightly, because they weren’t actually bluffing).

Whether Trump has chosen this approach because he’s gamed it out and believes he knows his opponent or just because he’s a fat-headed idiot who actually couldn’t name the North Korean leader in an interview the other day, who knows? Either way, I think he’s risking a lot more than his administration realises.

There is in truth no historical precedent to North Korea, 2017. There have been hermit kingdoms before, and plenty of repressive regimes with human rights records at least as bad, but this situation is unique. The Korean War was settled by ceasefire in 1953, but it didn’t technically end. More importantly, for North Korea, it has literally never ended.

North Korea has spent the past 64 years essentially waiting and preparing for the re-engagement of hostilities with the South. In North Korean eyes, South Korea is a client state of the US, underlined by the permanent physical presence of substantial US forces in the country and very visibly on the border itself.

The entire psychological narrative of North Korea’s regime and culture is siege. The country has no geographical ambitions; it is hermetically sealed and proclaims itself as self-reliant. If it has a purpose, it is glorification of the ruling Kim family and defence against inevitable invasion.

Dictators usually betray their cynicism; there is no evidence that in North Korea there is any cynicism to be unveiled. Kim Jong-un is clearly a man-baby reared from birth to his destiny as a god, and it’s hardly surprising that he wields his absolute power amorally. His capriciousness and cruelty are to be expected in that context. There is no reason to assume, as the media is tending to do, that he is consciously playing a role in the ongoing pantomime of North Korean power politics. He may well believe his own press. It’s probably worth remembering that his new US adversary, also a man-baby, definitely believes his own press.

Both Trump and the media are largely proceeding with North Korea along conventional lines of how, historically, a superpower may overcome the pretensions of deluded despots: by calling their bluff. Trump has assessed that North Korea is impervious to sanctions, promises and soft threats. His conclusion, that the genuine threat of actual war will do the trick, is dangerously flawed.

North Korea has been constructed for the sole purpose of its own preservation, in full expectation that it will one day be attacked. It doesn’t fear that outcome; if it ever came to believe that it wasn’t going to happen, the regime probably would fold. It is, in fact, the closest approximation to Orwell’s invention that has yet been achieved. Perpetual war is the essence of that vision.

In the Cold War, Khrushchev’s burial threat was impolite but tolerable, as was the return to uneasy peace after the Cuban crisis. This was because of the underpinning reality of Mutually Assured Destruction; each of the US and USSR could destroy the other, and each didn’t want to be destroyed. The real insurance of peace was everyone’s desire to live.

It isn’t relevant whether the North Koreans love their children too. The residents of Jonestown loved their children, but that parental instinct never slows down a doomsday cult. If the Americans think they can bring North Korea to its senses with the prospect of nuclear annihilation, I think they’re dead wrong. There is a high probability that Kim won’t hesitate to pre-empt in a nuclear way, because the consequences are not likely to be something he fears. It might actually be his destiny.

It’s like they say: don’t play chicken with a train.

Peter Fray

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