North Korea sent another missile into the Sea of Japan today, earning a routine condemnation by its neighbors and the United States. In the wake of this and recent experiments with an intercontinental missile that might someday deliver a nuclear weapon to the western U.S., the Trump administration has warned of the possibility of unilateral American action against the dynastic communist regime. While North Korea has been overshadowed today by the chemical warfare charges leveled against Syria, Kim's country remains a red flag waving irritably in the eye of the American bull. Like his father and grandfather, Kim Jong-Un is the archetypal totalitarian dictator of our nightmares, not to mention the sort of "madman" (or at least a spoiled brat) who might well fling a missile our way if he thinks it would hit. Like no other world leaders, it seems, the Kims inspire visceral hatred among American politicians, though ordinary Americans probably have always found them more laughable than scary. Every new outburst from Pyongyang incites debate over what to do about North Korea. These debates beg a deeper question: what does Kim want? American opinion seems split. Bruce Cumings represents those who believe that Kim wants security first and foremost. He blames American "nuclear blackmail" for North Korea's arms program and seems to believe that Kim would quiet down if assured that the U.S. and South Korea don't intend to topple him from power. For Cumings, this is a matter of common sense, or a matter of diplomats putting themselves in Kim's shoes and seeing the world as he may see it. He's frustrated with people who hate the Kims so much that they won't do this simple thing. Their viewpoint, apparently, is that Kim is so alien (or "grotesque," as a Clinton-era diplomat said to Cumings) that even proposing empathy as a thought exercise is obscene.
Of course, one might be too confident that someone born and bred to the purple like Kim Jong-Un thinks just as you or I might. Looking at the map, it may appear self-evident that Kim wants security first, but Cumings can go too far in describing the U.S. as the aggressor on the Korean peninsula, since it was the North that invaded the South in 1950 and not vice versa. It's not unreasonable to believe that Kim's first priority remains unifying Korea under his rule, at all costs. And for all we can know, had his grandfather succeeded then a Korea unified under the Juche Idea might be no more of a threat to southeast Asia than unified communist Vietnam is now. We were poised to put a stake through Kim Il-Sung back then before China intervened, and to this day the People's Republic remains North Korea's often-disgusted guarantor. China's interests are probably more self-evident than Korea's. They supposedly fear a refugee crisis that would land entirely in their laps were the North destabilized. More obviously, they presumably prefer a buffer state that remains ostensibly friendly to a unification that would put a potentially hostile army at their border. As well, they probably like the idea of North Korea distracting the U.S. from other strategic issues in the region. They prop up, or at least tolerate the Kim regime for the same reason that they oppose our installation of a missile defense system in South Korea: to ensure that the U.S. faces deterrents to full freedom of action in southeast Asia. In turn, we resent deterrents because we feel exceptionally entitled to freedom of action, for freedom's sake, all over the world. And in our arrogance, the idea that Kim dares to deter us with nuclear weapons makes him only more intolerable. If we were less arrogant about our role in the world, Americans wouldn't have to wonder about what might motivate Kim Jong-Un. It would be enough to know that, so long as he does not threaten to attack South Korea, he enjoys the same sovereignty, and thus the same legal protection against invasion or regime change from the outside as every other ruler, no matter how distasteful his practices are. All he has to do is renounce the idea of unification by force, so long as we and South Korea do the same, and he'd be free to command and abuse his subjects as he pleases until they finally figure out how embarrassing they look to the rest of the world for taking it and do something about it.