He's the archetypal crackpot egotistical Bond villain threatening the planet. That's the common notion of Kim Jong-Un. Perhaps. While we can't know what is inside his head, we can judge his actions with insight into the politics of nuclear weapons. Such insight puts a different complexion on the current crisis.
Political scientists often assume a leader's core interest is staying in office. With Kim Jong-Un, this is closely coupled with maintaining North Korea's distinctive political ideology. As a state, North Korea only exists because of the Cold War and is one of its few remaining vestiges. Yet for the North, the end of the Cold War brought not peace, but a higher level of regime specific threat and insecurity. There is no peace-treaty with South Korea that recognises borders or status, it no longer enjoys the superpower backing of its once Soviet protector and each year it faces large-scale military exercises by the US and South Korea, the last just before its missile launch over Japan. And perhaps most tellingly, Jong-Un's own political ascendancy tallies with Washington's increased focus on 'rogue states' and regime change.
Back in 2002, North Korea was one of George W Bush's original 'axis of evil' along with Iraq and Iran, later joined by Libya, Syria and Cuba. Yet a glimpse into the fate of these regimes provides Kim Jong-Un with clear lessons in the politics of nuclear weapons and nuclear crises, readily reinforced by examples from the Cold War itself. Both Saddam Hussein, who did not have nuclear weapons and Muammar Gadaafi who agreed to disarm and terminate his nuclear weapons programme were forced out by western interventions.
Syria has descended into interminable civil war such that Assad remains in power only by virtue of external support.
Yet Iran has used its imminent capacity to build nuclear weapons to secure important political ends. Firstly, to deter an intervention similar to that in Iraq. Secondly, to get sanctions lifted and gain international recognition for the regime in return for agreeing not to develop nuclear weapons and allowing international inspections. Cuba too, while currently in a period of change, was during the Cold War able to gain the ultimate guarantee of its survival through nuclear diplomacy. The Cuba Missile Crisis of 1962 illustrates a 'security dilemma' whereby one's defensive move to enhance security by raising military capacity appears an offensive act to the other party, setting in train an upward spiral of insecurity. So it was that following a succession of attempts by Washington to remove Castro from power in Cuba, the Soviets installed nuclear weapons on Cuban soil. But while on October 26 US President Kennedy thought the only way to remove the missiles was by bombing, the next day he offered a deal that if the Soviets removed the missiles, the US would give a non-invasion pledge to Cuba and by the following morning the crisis had passed. Though the crisis also generated a new phase in the evolution of the Cold War leading to a period of détente, which produced cooperation over arms control, security agreements such as the CSCE, which included the recognition of borders and diffusion of cooperation into areas such as grain sales.
The point is simple, diplomacy is about learning to live together, especially with those with whom one disagrees or may not like. A succession of historical cases show the high stakes of nuclear diplomacy may create opportunities to put relations on a fresh footing that addresses the issues of respective parties. In the case of North Korea, to focus on the individual misses the point that leaders, even those with irregular hair cuts, may have genuine security concerns, which unaddressed pose the risk of some future nuclear conflagration, as much by accident or miscalculation as by intent.
John MacMillan is senior lecturer in politics and history at Brunel University London