They don’t look alike. One is tall and thin, the other short and pot-bellied. If they ever meet for a summit, they could pose for photos as the Blues Brothers of international relations. But it’s not likely that George W. Bush and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il will face the cameras together any time soon.
It’s too bad. Clasping hands, they would probably see into each other’s souls and discover a secret affinity.
After all, the American and the North Korean have so much in common. It’s not just their strikingly similar backgrounds. The two commanders-in-chief also think in the same “us versus them” categories and have a shared fondness for rash and destabilizing actions. Over the next two years, it will be quite a contest to see which leader brings the world closer to apocalypse.
It’s tempting to argue that, physical appearances notwithstanding, the two future leaders were separated at birth. They both grew up in privileged families, though they have both taken pains to present themselves as men of the people. Not surprisingly, then, they have tried to obscure their origins. Kim Jong Il has sought a nationalist lineage by claiming his birthplace in revolutionary Mt. Paekdu in North Korea rather than Soviet Russia. George W. Bush, meanwhile, prefers to be a good ol’ Texas boy rather than the Connecticut-born blueblood that he is.
Although they are now the nominal heads of their respective armies, both lack military credentials. Bush avoided fighting in Vietnam by joining the National Guard. Although he has no combat experience, Kim joined the military committee of the Korean Workers Party in 1980 before becoming head of the army in 1991. Rather than the austere life of the military, both leaders reportedly abused their share of substances in the course of partying hardy in their early decades.
On the eve of taking power, neither leader-to-be was well-traveled or particularly well-equipped for leadership. And neither has turned out to possess much charisma. Kim Jong Il has famously uttered fewer than a dozen words in his rare public appearances. Given his tendency to mangle the English language, Bush perhaps should have taken a cue from his secret brother.
This lack of charisma underscores their most salient similarity: both leaders struggle in the shadows of their more statesmanlike fathers. Oedipal insecurity no doubt contributed to two of the worst foreign policy events of the last four years: the Iraq War (that Bush Sr. started but didn’t finish) and North Korea’s nuclear weapons program (that Kim Il Sung started but never consummated).
Personality-wise, both leaders can best be described as malignant narcissists. They both betray what the DSM-IV calls “an all-pervasive pattern of grandiosity,” a “need for admiration or adulation,” and a “lack of empathy.” This is likely a common set of traits for world leaders, but Kim’s personality cult and Bush’s quest for world domination elevate their grandiosity to a higher plane.
It is this last quality of inflated self-importance – of crafting a legacy — that makes both leaders so dangerous. But let’s be clear. Sitting on top of an enormous collection of nuclear warheads and with a conventional army that outstrips the combined efforts of all possible adversaries, George W. Bush is the far more dangerous man.
In the coming months, the U.S. president may well defy Congress, the U.S. public, leaders in his own party, most of the military brass, and even some of his closest advisors by attacking Iran. Anyone with a modicum of knowledge of the Middle East can explain the insanity of this idea, from the spillover effect in Iraq and the further boost in terrorist recruitment to the impact on the oil market and the further souring of U.S. relations with allies (not to mention all the human casualties). But Bush was similarly warned about the war in Iraq. His grand plan for remaking the Middle East – and solidifying U.S. unilateralism – was impervious to sensible critique.
All of this makes the oft-quoted megalomania of Kim Jong Il seem like the mere biteless barking of a radio shock jock. Those with a poor grasp of rocket science trumpet the threat of a North Korean nuclear attack on Omaha. But even if Pyongyang somehow overcame the technical challenges – their long-range missile tests have been duds and their recent nuclear test was sub par – it would face a much more significant obstacle. Any rash North Korean move, from a nuclear strike against the United States to an artillery barrage against South Korea, would trigger a retaliatory attack from Washington that would wipe the country from the map.
Malignant narcissist he might be, but Kim Jong Il isn’t crazy. A retaliatory attack would vaporize himself, his family, his country, and his movie collection. In fact, the leader is likely to lash out only if cornered — threatened militarily, squeezed economically – and left with no other sane options. North Korea’s weakness is a greater threat than its purported strength.
Herein lies a final, fatal symmetry. The Bush administration, too, might act out of weakness rather than strength. Its Iraq policy failing, its popularity at home and abroad as low as it can go, and with no hope of salvaging its larger aims for the Middle East, the administration might launch a “Hail Mary” barrage of air and sea power against Iran. That the president is considering just such a play and damn the consequences speaks poorly of the state of his mind and the state of our democracy.
In the apocalypse sweepstakes, then, the American president comes out on top and his North Korean soul brother comes up short. It doesn’t leave much for the rest of us, except to continue pressing for regime change in Washington. And keep singing the blues.
TomPaine, January 29, 2007