North Korea: Strange Behavior Of Late Leads to Even Stranger Conclusions About Its Aims

The last four weeks have been very significant for North Korea in context of its international relations. The country has appeared in the headlines for both the bad and good, leading to an interesting set of conclusions.

The Bad

The United Nations Security Council responded to North Korea’s recent nuclear launch test by voting unanimously to build on previous resolutions and institute fresh economic sanctions on the state. Diplomatic rhetoric became very heated, South Korean Defense minister Kim Min Seok said it would “wipe the North Korean government from the face of the earth” in response to North Korea’s threat it would aim warheads at the south. Despite further ratcheted UN sanctions, heavy handed diplomatic rhetoric and another satellite test launch by the North Koreans, all of which have further isolated most isolated state in the world; if you have been following closely or even just caught the headlines of major news wires, the news was not all bad.

The Good

North Korea invited former NBA star Dennis Rodman and three former Harlem Globetrotters who are filming a documentary. Pictures of former NBA star Dennis Rodman sitting together with a boyishly excited Kim Jong-un trended worldwide. Not only that, according to Rodman they struck quite a friendship, reportedly telling Kim, “You have a friend for life.”

Only a little while earlier (in January) Eric Schmidt, Google Executive Chairman visited North Korea and later announced that Pyongyang will soon be mapped on Google Earth and be incorporated into its other mapping products. For those watching very closely, particularly Instagrammers, David Guttenfelder Associated Press chief photographer has been posting exclusive peaks of the capital city where he is currently on assignment. How is this possible you ask? North Korea recently liberalized its Internet laws, bringing 3G Internet connectivity to foreigners in Pyongyang. All of these events have been interesting in their own right, but together we can take away some important insights and developing trends regarding North Korea.

The Conclusions

When Kim Jong-un was anointed successor following the death of his father, he was more than an enigma to the world who knew almost nothing about the leader; but not anymore. The events over the past month has created a far more detailed caricature of the leader; the visible extent of his love for basketball, an unlikely friendship with Dennis Rodman, that he considers the internet crucial to North Korea’s development, and has taken gradual steps to liberalize internet connectivity in the country. All has not changed completely though, Schmidt’s daughter blogged about her trip and many of her observations are similar to accounts by previous visitors: "Our trip was a mixture of highly-staged encounters, tightly-orchestrated viewings and what seemed like genuine human moments." Even so, these insights into North Korea and its leadership suggests that the best route to understanding and engaging North Korea may not be through traditional diplomatic channels.

Both trips were criticized by the U.S state department, perhaps due to its feelings of neglect, because North Korea has demonstrated its willingness to open up to the international community, rather than typical government channels and state mediums.  Sanctions might cripple, and they certainly have crippled North Korea, but any sort of a negotiated settlement seems further away than ever. North Korea’s nuclear aspirations have certainly proved to global conundrum and has been in dire need of something to change the dynamics (basketball diplomacy?), and maybe these events will pave the way for other important business man and or non-governmental leaders and figures will lead the charge to engage Kim Jong Un.