TOKYO — The prospect of a military confrontation between the United States and Iran has dominated global media coverage since the U.S. airstrike that killed Iran's most powerful military commander.
Not so in North Korea, where the elimination of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani and the upheaval it unleashed have barely rated a mention in tightly controlled state organs.
Between coverage of supreme leader Kim Jong Un’s major policy speech last week and his visit to a fertilizer factory this week, a small report by the Korean Central News Agency on Monday noted that China and Russia condemned a U.S. strike in Baghdad. The last paragraph noted that the raid had led to the deaths of Iran’s Quds Force commander and an Iraqi militia figure, without naming them or offering any real sense of Soleimani’s importance.
On Tuesday, another brief report noted that an antiwar demonstration took place in Washington.
Given North Korea’s propensity to criticize what it calls U.S. aggression in state media diatribes, why is its leadership so skittish about Iran?
“The fact that they did not mention Soleimani’s name, or reaction from Tehran, indicates that Soleimani’s killing is a sensitive issue to the Pyongyang regime,” said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with the NK Pro news service.
Experts say Pyongyang’s caution stems from its fear of U.S. military action and its reluctance to acknowledge that important leaders might be eliminated — lest anyone at home start getting ideas. Its state media has a record of withholding information about the fates of former dictators targeted by the United States who ended up being killed, including Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi.
“Even to this day, North Korean state media do not mention the fates of Hussein and Gaddafi, only referring to their ‘overthrow’ and how Libya and Iraq are good examples of caving in to foreign powers and coming to ruin,” Lee said.
Still, for North Korea, the events in Iran bolster Kim’s conclusion that two years of tentative diplomacy with Washington have come to naught, while vindicating his ruling family’s decision decades ago to develop a nuclear deterrent.
The U.S. attack on Soleimani came just days after North Korea officially abandoned its push for sanctions relief from the Trump administration and declared it would return to a more confrontational approach. In a policy speech on New Year’s Eve, Kim made it clear that his country has no intention of relinquishing its nuclear weapons, which he views as the only guarantee of his regime’s security.
Kim stressed repeatedly that North Korea could not give up that security even for economic happiness and comfort, was prepared for a long-term standoff with the United States and would have to achieve economic progress through its own efforts.
“It is true that we urgently need an external environment favorable for our economic construction, but we can never sell our dignity, which we have so far defended as valuable as our own life, in the hope of gorgeous transformation,” Kim said.
The idea that North Korea would trust a U.S. administration that had walked away from the nuclear deal with Iran, much less a nation with a history of fomenting regime change abroad, was always fanciful, experts say, but Kim made it clear that the experience of dealing with the United States over the past two years had only reinforced his convictions.
Even if the nuclear issue were resolved, the United States would only “find fault with another thing we do, and its military and political threat would not cease,” he said in the policy speech.
In these circumstances, he said, “we further hardened our determination never to barter the security and dignity of our state and the safety of its future for anything else.”
Trump insists that Kim promised to denuclearize when the pair met in Singapore in 2018, and he says he still hopes that, as a “man of his word,” the North Korean leader will keep that vow.
But Pyongyang has insisted it never agreed to unilaterally give up its nuclear weapons, pointing out that the two leaders agreed only to work toward the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a formulation that also implies the withdrawal of the U.S. nuclear threat.
Nevertheless, there are risks ahead for Kim. Trump’s decision to kill Soleimani may convince him to push ahead even faster in developing his country’s nuclear arsenal, but it also demonstrates that the U.S. president is not all bluster when he talks of “fire and fury.”
That could help to make Kim think again if he considers raising the stakes by testing an intercontinental ballistic missile.
“In North Korea, it will be seen as a sign that Donald Trump is not just a lover of empty bellicose talk but somebody who can use force,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul.
“There was a growing suspicion that Donald Trump was talking tough but doing nothing. Now, it has been proven wrong,” he said. “For North Koreans, it is a very bad sign because it will mean that they have to behave even more carefully.”
In fact, Lankov said Kim’s speech New Year’s Eve was already a remarkably reserved statement, lacking even a formal decision to end a moratorium on nuclear and missile tests, and instead listing reasons it does not feel bound by that promise.
Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said rising tensions between Iran and the United States would discourage escalation by North Korea but also hold it back from denuclearizing.
“Some analysts have argued that Kim has Trump’s number and no longer fears ‘mad man’-style brinkmanship, as during the ‘fire and fury’ days of 2017. But Trump taking out a top Iranian leader might cause Pyongyang to rethink the scale of its next provocation,” he said.
On the other hand, North Korea probably will see the killing of Soleimani as an effort toward regime change in Iran.
“So, the logic goes, Pyongyang must resist denuclearization and further enhance its self-avowed ‘strategic deterrent’ for regime survival,” Easley said.