When it comes to geopolitics, we tend to prefer black-and-white analyses to infinite shades of grey. We like a world that is neatly split into developed and developing countries; and one in which foreign nations are identified as either allies or enemies.
The last year has challenged such neat categorisations. Following the EU referendum, Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe continues to be recalibrated. Donald Trump’s triumphant White House run, meanwhile, has led many to question whether the “special relationship” between the UK and the US is really so desirable. And with economic growth in Britain still stultifyingly slow, it is easy to forget that this country is supposed to be one of the planet’s economic powerhouses. As for the Middle East, Isis remains a constant evil in the midst of ever-changing line-ups of nasty rogue groups, religious and ethnic militias and national armies.
Thank goodness then for North Korea. Whatever else happens, we can be sure that in Pyongyang there are baddies who appear to conform so closely to stereotype that their portrayal in the 2004 Team America: World Police movie seemed more documentary than parody.
The latest launch of four ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan fits into a familiar narrative: North Korea, the world’s most isolationist nation, seeks to advance its military technology; weapons tests are accompanied by highly charged rhetoric against real or imagined enemies; global condemnation is followed by debates about how the international community should respond.
In Western media coverage, there is particular focus on how far an armed North Korean rocket could travel. Kim Jong-un’s regular invocation of America as his country’s greatest enemy means that any hint of his military bringing US targets within reach has especial resonance. And to an extent that is entirely understandable. North Korea’s leader is such a maverick that Americans and Europeans are right to be concerned at the possibility of his armies being able to strike a blow against the West.
Yet there is also a danger in over-simplifying the cartoonish nature of Kim Jong-un. Much as we may find it easier to think of him sitting at the barber’s, stroking an over-sized cat and plotting unlikely nuclear attacks against New York and London, by doing so we can end up overlooking the more plausible threats he poses to neighbouring states, and – perhaps even worse – the everyday bleakness his regime imposes on his own people. Similarly, the apparently outlandish assassination of Kim’s half-brother in Malaysia last month might have added to the rogue mystique of North Korea, but it shouldn’t blind us to the grim reality of life for hundreds of thousands of ordinary citizens in the country.
A UN report in 2014 concluded that Pyonyang’s systematic abuses against its own citizens are unparalleled in the modern world. Torture, imprisonment and execution are regular features of the North Korean landscape; starvation is used as a deliberate tactic to maintain order; freedom of thought and speech is pretty much non-existent. High-profile “traitors” may occasionally be obliterated in a fury of artillery fire but tens of thousands political prisoners or other undesirables are simply “disappeared”. Actual warzones aside, there is surely no more terrifying place in the world to live.
And if one hazard of fixating on Kim Jong-un’s latest missile test or anti-American outburst is that we discount the true horrors of his domestic controls, another is that we fail to see that baddies come in all shapes and sizes. Kim, after all, sits on an obvious spectrum with other totalitarian leaders. Paranoia about traitors in his midst, an obsession with racial purity and his overt militarism are redolent of the grossest excesses of the Nazis or Stalin’s USSR. But what if the bigger dangers to the world were posed by less ostentatious rogues?
True, Vladimir Putin’s threat isn’t exactly beneath the radar but he is no maverick in the Kim mould – and while Pyongyang can’t as yet deliver a nuclear warhead on a missile, Putin has a couple of thousand such weapons ready to fire. China, meanwhile, has the biggest active military in the world and its expansionist policies in the South China Sea could very easily become a flashpoint – but its leaders are dull, so why worry?
And then of course there is the one global leader who can rival Kim in the eccentricity stakes: our new friend in the White House. But of course, he’s American; and they are never the bad guys. Are they?