North Korea is behaving as if it were a servant of the long-run foreign policy of China.

Hitler and Kim Jong-un are the two heads of state in living memory who look most likely to be stark raving mad. Hitler was a grand master of using Germany to the service of his ambitions, but he was unable to adjust to the behaviour of other peoples whom he usually misjudged. He wrote in Mein Kampf that Germany must never fight against both the West and the East, but should find an enemy on one side and a friend on the other. It should be a friend of England and go and conquer Russia, or on the contrary be peaceful to the Russians and try and have colonises in Africa and Asia, at the expense of England. After the surrender of France in 1930, Hitler should have done everything possible to make peace with England but he never made a serious effort to do so. This failure, though perhaps success would not even have been possible, ultimately lost him the war both in West and East, and led him to suicide in 1945 as the soldiers of Marshals Konev and Zhukov took possession of the ruins of Berlin. There is nothing to allow us to foresee the end of Kim Jong-un, but President Donald Trump in his most recent speech to the United Nations has said that Mr. Kim is “on a suicide mission for himself.” In a speech whose audience was the United Nations and Pyongyang, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un have prophesy amabilities for each other.

In his speech, Trump called Kim Jong-un a “Rocket Man” who is “on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.” Trump also asserted, “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”1 In reply, Mr. Kim said he would “tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.”

The historical background of the current situation is relatively simple. After World War II and the separation of Korea along the 38th parallel, the communists emerged dominant in the Northern half of Korea and subsequently undertook the conquest of the South in 1950. Chinese “volunteers” assisted them. This civil war brought success for the communists until US and other NATO forces under the command of General Douglas MacArthur intervened and reversed the rapport of forces. General MacArthur was in fact pushing the Chinese forces back to China. President Harry Truman did not wish to make a war with the Chinese, and ordered MacArthur back to the interior of the country. The Mutual Defense Treaty in 1953 cut Korea in two, with the North for the communists and the South for a “democratic” republic and close alliance with America. The republican part of the country turned to ordinary capitalism and with double-digit economic growth for the succeeding years became quite rich indeed. The North, by contrast, opted for a communist regime, and remained poor to such an extent that the population was only saved from near starvation by American humanitarian relief shipments of wheat. The American reliefs were from time to time coupled with initiatives of bringing North and South together for the purpose of some agreements for the unification of the two Koreas. The North never really intended unification; the more the South was getting richer than the North, the more the latter was reluctant, because it felt in a unified Korea, the South would inevitably have the upper hand and eat the North for breakfast. The North, governed by a dynasty that owed its power to the Chinese, kept the population in near slave conditions, and had money to spend only for armaments. The North Korean nuclear culture in fact began somewhere fairly early in the reign of this dynasty. There were periodic attempts by the West to reach agreements with the North Koreans to halt their nuclear development in return for partial disarmament and American armed withdrawal from the South. The North always broke these attempts almost as soon as they were signed. Much the same sort was suffered by sanctions to hinder nuclear armaments, with the Chinese providing the necessary supplies via officially tolerated black market sources.

This story has not only Korean background, but also a Chinese one. China as a country and its Han people have felt themselves superior to every other for nearly 2000 years, with the foreign Mongol and Manchu dynasties being absorbed in the greater Chinese people. Western opium traders first broke this self-confidence in the late 19th century and was further diminished by a second and more painful Japanese occupation that started in the mid-1900s. The Chinese regained their sense of superiority only after the reign of Mao Zedong when the country turned to a quasi-capitalist system and started to become rich. The predecessors of the current President Xi Jinping were mostly concerned with economic development and not so much with the place of country in the hierarchy of nations. Xi Jinping, who is likely to be elected for a third five-year term this October, has less of a preoccupation with the economy (he sees it doing quite well, thank you). He is more concerned with the place of China compared with the place of America, which is still ahead but which will likely be replaced by China in a generation or less. The attention of Xi Jinping is very closely bound up with the discipline of the Chinese Communist Party, which wants to distinguish China in the hegemony of the world and distinguish China from free-trading capitalist America.

It is with the ambition of China to regain its hegemonic place that it used to have for two millennia that the North Korean dictatorship is finding its subordinate place. North Korea has now reached a point where most of the basic skills of nuclear armament have become an open secret to North Korean technicians, some of whom have great expertise comparable to those of American and European scientists. There are only a few things that their nuclear armaments are not yet fully able to do. One involves the very long distance nuclear missile that would reliably carry a warhead from Korea to the west coast of the United States. The other is the re-entry mechanism that carries the nuclear warhead from its ballistic missile to the ground. The North Koreans are now letting it be known that these new tricks have been mastered and the hypothetical nuclear attack from Korea to the West coast of the United States is now within their reach. American experts believe that the Koreans are not quite at the point where they could successfully destroy a West coast city, but they are not far from that point in the next year or so.

“The stage is now about to be set for intensified joint action between China and North Korea, with each playing its role in what may be a coordinated plan.”

The stage is now about to be set for intensified joint action between China and North Korea, with each playing its role in what may be a coordinated plan. The Chinese will first learn to manage the new and really quite severe sanctions imposed against North Korea by the United Nations and separately by the United States. The Chinese will do what they have always done, that is to comply with the sanction on paper but do in secret what is needed for the North Korean regime to function, at least with regard to its military and internal security needs. Oil will continue to be secured, and what the population will find to eat will as usual take care of itself. What is probably more important, China will say even more emphatically than before that it will not tolerate substantial armed action against North Korea, any such action been regarded as an attack on China itself. Kin Jong-un will feel safe under the Chinese umbrella. China will continue to advocate “talks”.

For more on these topics, see “Economic Lessons for Children from The Hunger Games”, by Mathew Rousu, Library of Economics and Liberty, December 7, 2015; and “Thoughts for Tigers”, by Pedro Schwartz, Library of Economics and Liberty, June 5, 2017. See also the EconTalk podcast episode Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on Democracies and Dictatorships.

The North Korean role in this plan is to maintain or increase the nervous tension that its nuclear exercises are generating in the Pacific Ocean. The whole area between Southeast Asia and America will be inspired with more or less justified fear of what North Korean ballistic missiles will do tomorrow. For generating fear and nervousness, the North Koreans will only have to do what they have done in the recent past, that is to say to behave as the irresponsible spoiled child that the Chinese will not wish to discipline. Much of this area are allies of the United States, while most of the rest is an area of U.S. interest at least in an informal sense. One of the constructive measures of the Obama administration was to conclude the Pacific Alliance Trade Treaty, which formalized this U.S. interest in the field of trade and its regulation. It has not yet been ratified by the United States, and one of the most urgent measures of President Donald Trump was to tear it apart, as it was not representative of “America First.” This, of course, makes it easier for China to let it be known to the countries of Southeast Asia, notably South Korea, the Philippines, the former French colonies of Indo-China, Thailand, Burma and finally yet importantly, Japan that their security would be more reliable if they were under a Chinese than under an American umbrella. It may be the role of a nuclear North Korea to generate such a feeling. It may be the decisive change from what is an American hegemony to a Chinese one, which may well be the long-term policy aim of Beijing.

Military history tells us that defensive armaments are usually developed in response to offensive ones, but there is sometimes a time lag before the defensive methods catch up with the offensives one. We may be in the centre of this time lag, with nuclear missiles being in the offensive, and the defensive arm still missing. We can only pray that American engineers will finish the work of developing reliable defensive nuclear missiles, a piece of work that they are probably near to complete.


As quoted in “In U.N. speech, Trump threatens to ‘totally destroy North Korea’ and calls Kim Jong Un ‘Rocket Man’ “, by David Nakamura and Anne Gearan. The Washington Post, September 19, 2017.


*Anthony de Jasay is an Anglo-Hungarian economist living in France. He is the author, a.o., of The State as well as other books, including Social Contract, Free Ride, Political Philosophy, Clearly, Political Economy, Concisely, Economic Sense and Nonsense, and Justice and Its Surroundings. His books may be purchased through the Liberty Fund Book Catalog.

The State is also available online on this website.

For more articles by Anthony de Jasay, see the Archive.