The killing of Qasem Soleimani by an American drone on orders from President Trump as the Iranian general arrived in Baghdad to spur on Iran-backed Iraqi militia against the United States confronts Kim Jong-un with serious problems.
The first is that North Korea cannot publicize the episode for fear its citizens will realize that their leader also is vulnerable. Kim knows that an attack from an American drone can also destroy him and his generals despite what he thinks is the defense afforded by nuclear weapons and missiles capable of sending them to distant targets. Kim has to recognize that his friendship with Trump may not guarantee him immunity. He has to consider the danger to which he personally is exposed whenever he visits a military unit, a factory or a farm or on those rare occasions when he presides over a mass event in Pyongyang.
Second, North Korea has to analyze very carefully its de facto alliance with Iran, to which it has shipped thousands of short- to mid-range missiles in recent years. George W. Bush, in his first State of the Union Address as president in 2002, included Iran, North Korea and Iraq in an “axis of evil.” Kim must decide quite quickly about the future of relations with Iran while tensions rise in both the Middle East and northeast Asia.
Links between Pyongyang and Tehran have been tight. North Korea and Iran have been cooperating on their nuclear program. Iran has yet to test a nuclear warhead, but Iranian advisers have been in North Korea witnessing tests of nuclear warheads and long-range missiles, last held in 2017. Just as important, hundreds of North Koreans are now on the ground in Iran and Syria advising on deployment of mid-range missiles made in North Korea. Some of these were undoubtedly used in attacks on U.S. bases in Iraq after Soleimani’s death, and a Korean-made missile may have brought down the Ukrainian airliner, killing all 176 on board.
The immediate view would be that North Korea and Iran may increase their collaboration, but there are reasons Kim might hesitate. One is that he needs to dedicate his resources to reviving his own economy while attempting to intimidate the U.S. into serious concessions, notably relief from sanctions. He has boasted of a fearsome “new strategic weapon” in his inventory, but that threat may be more rhetorical than real. The United States is not going to respond until he tests this weapon, and then the response may be to increase sanctions rather than yield under pressure to the North’s demands.
A third problem is that Kim should be alarmed by the implications of what’s happening inside Iran in the wake of Soleimani’s death. No sooner had Iranian authorities admitted that they were responsible for the downing of the Ukrainian airliner than young Iranians were on the streets. Shockingly, broadcast reports showed them shouting “death” to their own ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and refusing to trample on American and Israeli flags thrown on the ground before them.
Considering that huge crowds had been shouting “Death to America” at the funeral for Soleimani, the display of such a sudden shift in popular sentiment was unnerving. Iran may be a dictatorship, but obviously it’s not nearly so repressive as North Korea where the slightest display of opposition to Kim’s rule is absolutely unknown.
For weeks before Soleimani’s killing, demonstrators had taken to the streets of Tehran and other cities protesting sudden rises in fuel prices on top of restraints imposed by the regime. Images of soldiers suppressing crowds, reports of the deaths of thousands of protesters and continuing unrest had become staples on television well before Soleimani’s killing.
North Korean state media is not going to report such dissent in a society that remains in submission to a dictatorship that automatically tortures foes before executing them or sending them to a gulag from which the only escape is death. People in North Korea are certain to find out what’s happening, however, from their own access through illicit cellphones and foreign broadcasts that escape the pervasive scrutiny of authorities.
In the wake of Soleimani’s death, Kim has to worry about his own security against both foreign attack and internal dissent. His enemies, at home or abroad, are not likely to attack him now, but he cannot afford to take risks. If the Iranian regime is vulnerable, as seen in Trump’s order to annihilate Soleimani and some of his top aides, Kim needs to ask about the future of the relationship with Tehran.
What if the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei loses his grip on power and a new leader arises? The next Iranian regime may want to go on purchasing North Korean missiles and exchanging nuclear secrets, but it may also temper its aggressive activities. Kim may be more isolated than ever while fearful of attack from abroad and dissent from within.