Last night the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea or NK) showed off their military. They revealed an ICBM, fighter aircraft, artillery, tanks, and more. The motivation for doing so in that fashion escapes me.
First of all, obviously we can’t inspect any of it. The missiles could be mockups. We don’t even have observers on the ground, and the parade took place at night. We don’t know what is retouched.
Secondly, there’s a bit of an election coming up in the US. (We’re not making too big a deal out of it, but perhaps you heard something) This parade was just under a month before the election. There was no similar parade last year. This year is the 75th anniversary of NK’s ruling Worker’s Party, which is admittedly a big deal.
Finally, NK does nothing with Xi’s permission. NK is effectively a Chinese vassal state at this time.
So what’s going on?
The simplest read on this is that Kim had some new toys, he wanted to show them off, so he did. The people of NK are horribly oppressed, starving, and yet driven by a psychotic cult of personality, and Kim has to give them something regularly. Posit: Kim has been misleading and befuddling Donald Trump, using the time to develop weapons and military power, and showed his people he’s the boss, he’s so great, yadda, yadda, propaganda, yadda. I will call this Occam’s Hypothesis.
It’s a damning indictment of Trump’s personal engagement strategy, as clearly expressed here in Tyler Rogoway’s article for the Warzone.
The problem with this hot take is that Trump isn’t JUST engaging personally, though he most certainly is that and at an intensity and level poorly precedented. Trump also implemented a stranglehold of sanctions and blockades. The US is aggressively seizing NK ships and impounding them in Indonesia and the Phillipines. NK slave workers in China and Russia are being (partially) forced home, choking off NK’s supply of hard currency. The Rogoway article above clearly takes the approach that Trump’s personal diplomacy is a failure, and Kim has demonstrated how much of a failure at the parade. Rogoway ignores sanctions and economic pressure entirely.
But the simple solution to that is that Kim demonstrated the weakness of sanctions too. He’s saying the sanctions do nothing.
That may be correct. This is the simplest solution, and therefore has the smallest burden of proof.
If the sanctions are partially effective, than NK may have partially implemented progress. If SOME of the hardware they showed off was real, the rest could be enhanced or impersonated via the first point above. Rogoway talks at length, and cogently, about aircraft numbers, but those aircraft are shown at night. Rogoway mentions ‘we saw seven MiG-29s flying at one time.’ Did we? Are they all functional MiGs, or are some functional? Camera tricks are a thing. The flyover was at night, and though Rogoway doesn’t seem to notice it, he does mention that the footage seems to be spliced together. We don’t actually know how many aircraft Kim had, either functional, NK flagged (as opposed to perhaps Chinese and on loan), or simply something else. Rogoway’s habit of taking North Korean propaganda at face value is odd.
This is not a counterargument. This is a weakening argument, intended to demonstrate the supposed parade might not be all it appears.
In the third point at the beginning of this post, I note a Chinese connection and did so again in the overabove paragraph. Looking to Xi, some US intelligence thinks Xi, and therefore China, is working against a Trump reelection. This parade helps that effect. The demonstration of military prowess, either real or fictitious, hurts Trump. His pursued strategy, personal engagement and sanctions, clearly failed if NK is capable of putting these things together. The parade, four weeks before election day, may shade Trump’s reelection chances. Further, it is a powerful counterargument to the recent advances Trump made in Middle East diplomacy. It further condemns both sanctions as a strategy, beyond Trump the implementer.
Is there an inherent contradiction these notes and Occam’s Hypothesis?
No. If Kim showed off his toys, Xi may have helped him. Their purposes would have coincided.
The problem here is that if Kim is so good at getting around Trump, why would he burn that bridge? Why not keep his strength hidden and keep progressing?
Going back to Xi, of course that’s what Xi does. For a long time China and the Chinese Communist Party embraced a strategy of hiding their strength. Xi threw all that away, and he’s showing his strength on the global stage. It would be in his style to do such a thing in North Korea, and if NK is taking orders from China (which again, I think it is) than this is Xi’s signature scrawled across a nighttime parade.
Xi could have supplied aircraft. They don’t have to be functional aircraft; they just have to look like MiG 29s or Su 25s. Remember, we can’t see them well. No observers, nighttime parade. Xi could have supplied heavy machines and technical support. If China is testing missiles, China could get around international uproar by having NK test the missiles instead and share the information.
The counterargument to the above paragraph is that Xi isn’t actually showing off his strength, Kim is. Why do that? Subtlety? Possibly. Or it could be a hole in the train of logic.
Focusing on Kim, why do the parade and burn the bridge? I don’t really know. That’s the initial question I had, and I don’t have an answer. I tend to think things are more about the doers than others, and the notion to put US politics at the center of other nations is inherently foolish. Occam’s Hypothesis, Kim showed off to his people, is the simplest explanation. Either supported by Xi or independent, it’s probably about him.
But there were a lot of smoke and mirrors in the form of nightfall, lights, and questionable camera operations. Such things should not be ignored.
In a final note, NK released various videos at the same time. They indicate NK’s military, including nuclear weapons, is a defensive tool. It’s different than the strident rhetoric of a few years ago. I’m still going through them.