North Koreans might be impoverished and starving, but Pyongyang has entered the Internet age. Unfortunately, the new leadership isn’t using its skills to make friends.
Thirty-year-old ruler Kim Jong-un has followed his “Great Leader” grandfather and “Dear Leader” father, so some of us call him the “Cute Leader.” But he’s not proving to be warm and cuddly—at least toward the United States.
The so-called Democratic People’s Republic of Korea recently posted an animated YouTube video showing Manhattan in flames after a missile attack from an unnamed country. The images are cribbed from the video game Call of Duty and the audio is an instrumental version of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s “We Are the World”—so it’s not exactly an ILM-quality production. Scrolling across the pictures is Korean text reading, “It appears that the headquarters of evil, which has had a habit of using force and unilateralism and committing wars of aggression, is going up in flames it itself has ignited.”
The DPRK video—removed from YouTube because of copyright violation but still available elsewhere—occasioned hand-wringing and worries that maybe the United States should take the threat seriously. However, the threat is nothing new. Pyongyang previously issued posters showing missiles hitting America’s Capitol Hill.
The North Koreans aren’t the only people to view Washington as the Center of All Evil. However, most of the rest of us, especially here at Cato, don’t view foreign missile attacks as a particularly good solution to political disagreements.
North Korea has spent decades perfecting venomous insults and rhetorical overkill. Now it’s using the new technology to add visual impact. And Americans aren’t the only target. The North long has threatened to turn Seoul into a “lake of fire.” It’s a great turn of phrase, but it would have a lot more impact if backed by a Hollywood production of South Korea’s capital dramatically turning into a lake of fire.
Instead of fussing over the Cute Leader’s video, U.S. policymakers should offer a derisive chuckle. The North’s leadership is evil, not stupid, and knows that it would be eradicated in any war with America.
When I visited the DPRK two decades ago, officials with whom I met expressed their pride at having rebuilt their capital after U.S. forces destroyed it. They meant that as a barb, but I knew they were irritated that Washington had the capability to wreck their nation even six decades ago. Pyongyang has no means to hurt Manhattan or the rest of the America. Their missiles can’t reach the United States, let alone actually target any particular spot. They have nuclear materials, but not necessarily workable weapons, let alone small nuclear weapons for use on missiles. And there are no suicide bombers in North Korea ready to wage asymmetric warfare against the United States; the North Korean elites want their virgins in this world, not the next.
The only Americans vulnerable to Pyongyang’s unwanted attention are military personnel stationed in South Korea. That’s a good reason to bring them home. Another is that with 40 times the GDP and twice the population of the DPRK, the South is well able to defend itself.
At the same time, Washington and Seoul should redouble their efforts to convince China to place more pressure on North Korea to back off the bellicose behavior. The North enjoys continuing Chinese diplomatic support and economic aid. While it won’t be easy to convince Beijing, the allies need to relearn the art of persuasion.
The Cute Leader knows how to use YouTube. Impressive—he’s as tech-saavy as an American middle-schooler. His grandfather left the North Korean people poor—they enjoy barely 5 percent of the South’s per-capita GDP. His father allowed hundreds of thousands of people to starve to death (the weather always seems to be bad wherever people live under communism). But Pyongyang can use American video games and pop music to make propaganda videos.
North Korea’s latest splenetic outburst is much ado about nothing. Pyongyang remains more tragedy and farce than threat to America. It would be a good time for the United States to turn the DPRK problem over to Seoul.