Kim Jong-un’s nuclear “bluster”: can liberal ideals help explain a tyrant?

Last week, the Supreme Leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, once again flaunted his willingness to mount nuclear weapons as a show of force to “US imperialists and their followers”. His demand that North Korea ready nuclear missiles for possible deployment came in response to South Korea and the United States’s renewed military operations and the United Nations Security Council’s vote to impose harsher sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear belligerence.

Given North Korea’s international reputation for domestic violations of human rights and disregard for international peace and humanitarian accords, any such threats of nuclear action are duly frightening.


What do these threats say about Jong-un’s capacity for leadership?

It may, ironically, be productive to measure Jong-un’s leadership against the standards of the Western liberal tradition. While such authoritarian and aggressive leadership may seem in apparent contradiction with liberal values of human rights and open diplomacy, it also finds advocates among the humanistic framers of liberal thought.


Can fascist leadership serve the greater good?

Is it possible, as official North Korean propaganda claims, that on some level courting a nuclear confrontation contributes to internal peace, and the suppression of dissent contributes to national unity? Might Jong-un’s efforts to project himself as a strong leader and formidable force of opposition to the encroaching West inspire the loyalty of North Korean citizens? Could his boldness and defiance of the will of the international community signal to his people a willingness to defend North Korea’s culture and nationhood at all costs?

Yet, Kim Jong-un’s military policy offers an opportunity to examine the conflict between iconic Western political theories of leadership on one hand, and equally venerated liberal values for human rights, diplomacy, and democratic government on the other.


The Machiavellian Prince of Pyongyang

There is a long tradition in Western political theory that celebrates strong leadership as a palliative and reassuring means of discouraging social discord and dangerous instability. Niccolò Machiavelli’s watershed manual on political leadership, The Prince, instructs that military power is one of the most important determinants of a successful leader.

Preparedness is crucial, as is the willingness to lead an attack—for resorting to defense is a glaring sign of weakness. Military prowess is a means of maintaining autonomy, expanding territory, and exercising a show of force to intimidate rivals.

The Prince also notoriously justified shrewd leadership, warning that a strong leader must never concern himself with doing good, or strive for ideals of what should be. Rather, they should be practical and pragmatic, and act in the interest of their state and themselves.

Ideally, the strong leader would strive to be liked by their subjects, though more likely by encouraging dependence on the ruler than by winning hearts and minds through good deeds. In this sense, the insistence that there is a great need for protection against aggressive enemies can encourage a sense of dependency and support for the ruler.

In many ways, it would seem that Kim Jong-un has embraced Machiavelli as his military and ethical advisor.


Kim Jong-un, a stabilizing Leviathan?

But can belligerence and isolationism truly serve the greater good? North Korea claims that the domineering style of leadership that the Western world perceives as dictatorial actually serves as a stabilizing influence that reduces such unrest at home.

The Enlightenment concept of the social contract is often associated with justified rebellion against unjust rule, following in the tradition of Thomas Paine’s contribution to political liberalism.

Yet, one of the early architects of the social contract, Thomas Hobbes, insisted that civilized societies required an authoritarian leader: a Leviathan. Hobbes warned against the inevitable tendency for men in a state of nature to foment war among themselves—a tendency that could only be resolved by strong leadership in a commonwealth.

And Hobbes did not bind leaders to ensure the greatest good for their citizens. In fact, he insisted that because men have differing ideals of what in fact constitutes the greater good, a commitment to such principles would foment irreconcilable tensions that would ultimately lead to civil war and the destruction of the state. By entering into a social contract, citizens willfully abdicate complete freedom and agree to submit to a code of conduct and the power of the state. In return, citizens need and deserve strong leadership and protection from a supreme leader.


Does isolation help or hinder a country’s culture?

In many ways, Jong-un’s dictatorial authority aligns with Hobbes’s theory of statesmanship. But North Korea’s defiance against international cooperation is at odds with typical twenty-first-century liberal ideals.

Modern liberalism generally accepts globalism at the political, if not the cultural, level; in order for self-determination, human rights, and international diplomacy to function in a globalized world, it is necessary to agree to international accords and allow a certain degree of openness and exchange as a gesture of good faith.

Yet, one of North Korea’s primary justifications for isolationism is to protect Korean heritage and values against the cultural assault of globalization, the implication being that globalization weakens the ethnic and national distinctiveness of different peoples.

The work of Arjun Appadurai calls this simple maxim into question. Appadurai offers two reasons why countries who isolate themselves from global influences could be limiting, rather than sustaining, their own cultural values.

Globalization, argues Appadurai, promotes unity across international borders by creating a shared ideological language and vision, through technology, media, social sciences, natural sciences, the humanities, and the arts.

It also creates fluid cultural exchange—what Appadurai calls “global cultural flows”. This is critical to the transregional experience of the social imaginary.

Isolationism makes cultural exchange all but impossible. North Korea may fear that sharing such cultural flows present a danger to the sanctity of Korean distinctiveness, but when shared ideals of peace, humanitarianism, and respect for cultural autonomy are made dependent on these cultural flows, isolationist countries like North Korea are necessarily set at odds with others by their non-participation.


Do classical liberal ideals of leadership still hold up?

The modern, global frame of liberalism retains much of the humanistic principles that originally inspired it. Yet, in a world of facile tele- and digital communication, with shared transnational values and commitments to open diplomacy and human rights, classical liberalism’s implicit acceptance of despotism, belligerence, and austere limitations on human and civil rights are drastically out of step.

Sadly, it takes threats of nuclear war from a leader like Kim Jong-un to illuminate this paradox of political liberalism.

Featured image by (stephan) on Flickr