Kim Jong Un’s tantrum in reaction to a movie fictionally portraying his assassination could end up being a self fulfilling prophecy. The cyberattack by North Korea on an American movie studio, and the resulting fallout, have left President Obama with little choice but to respond. Such a move will need to come indirectly, as China would never allow the United States to take military action in its back yard for the same reason the U.S. would never allow the Chinese military to take action in North America. But behind the scenes, Obama is likely pressuring China to act – and that action could ultimately be of the fatal variety.
China’s refusal to allow outside intervention in North Korea means that Kim Jong Un is solely China’s responsibility. And while the Chinese government has shown little regard for civil or human rights and likely doesn’t care that the North Korean people are living in abject poverty, China is pragmatic enough to recognize Kim as a liability. After all, if a nuclear mishap did happen in Pyongyang, the Chinese would be more at risk from the fallout than the United States.
At the same time, even as its list of economic allies and trade partners continues to grow worldwide, communist China has few ideological allies remaining. Its great fear is that if Kim were to fall, the North Koreans would rise up against communism in the process. If China was confident it could assassinate Kim and turn North Korea into a solid trade partner while keeping it communist, it probably would have happened already. Despite growing pressure form the rest of the world to take action, China’s excuse to this point has been that while Kim has repeatedly made unseemly verbal threats against the West, he’s had neither the inclination nor the ability to act on it.
But that’s all changed with the cyberattack on Sony. It’s far from a military attack, and doesn’t necessarily qualify as state sponsored terrorism. But the fallout has arguably been even worse for Americans: because the hacking led to a movie being pulled from theaters, their freedom of speech has been undermined. Kim Jong Un is now deciding which movies to censor in the United States. And that means he’s crossed a line.
China can no longer make the argument that North Korea isn’t a real threat to the west or its way of life. That means Obama now has real leverage with which to pressure the Chinese government to neutralize Kim Jong Un by whatever means necessary. China can try privately threatening to cut off support for Kim, a move which would certainly result in the collapse of his government. But there is little to suggest that Kim is coherent enough to understand or care about such consequences.
That means China’s only remaining option may be to send in agents to assassinate Kim, and presumably set it up to appear to the North Korean people as if it were the result of an internal struggle. The rest of the world would know different, but few would care and even fewer would be in a position to protest. China would then attempt to set up a new puppet government with a leader who can be controlled. North Korea would still be communist. But its citizens, most of whom don’t even have electricity or access to proper food, would be much better off if not acceptably better off. Beijing would then have to hope that, as the North Korean citizens gain access to modern advances and outside knowledge of the freedom the West enjoys, they don’t wise up enough to eventually overthrow communism entirely.
Even as he’s wound down the two major wars he inherited in favor of diplomacy when possible, President Obama has shown a willingness to take out rogue leaders who have attacked the United States. He had Osama Bin Laden assassinated, and he helped the Libyans to take out Moammar Gadhafi in similar fashion.
Both of those men had taken the lives of American citizens in terrorist attacks. Kim Jong Un merely carried enough cyber mischief to get an American movie canceled. But it’s an easy argument to make that the North Korean people would be better off with anyone in charge other than him, and it would be easy to take him out without having to bulldoze the entire nation in a land war. As much as China values having a communist neighbor for political and ideological reasons, China likely values its increasingly profitable trade relations with the United States and the West even more greatly.
Kim has finally crossed the kind of line which opens the door for Obama to privately demand that China clean up the mess in its back yard; continued trade negotiations may hinge on it. In hindsight, “The Interview” movie could end up feeling less like a fictional comedy and more like a quasi-documentary, as well as perhaps the first instance of an international leader triggering his own assassination by protesting a joke about his assassination.