TCS Daily

Sic Semper Tyrannis

By Josh Manchester - October 12, 2006 12:00 AM

John Kerry recently intoned a solemn lament on the US policy toward North Korea:

"While we've been bogged down in Iraq where there were no weapons of mass destruction, a madman has apparently tested the ultimate weapon of mass destruction."

How many times in the past 72 hours have you heard the words "madman," "crazy," "nutjob," or "insane" used in the context of discussing North Korea's admittedly unusual leader, Kim Jong Il? Quite a bit perhaps.

Kim Jong Il is not your average individual. Anyone who was raised to think of his father as a god is not going to fit in well at your average high school reunion. But persistent attempts to portray him as "crazy" in popular discourse are both inaccurate and dangerous.

They are inaccurate because "crazy" is not what Kim Jong Il is. Ruthless, with an insatiable lust for power - that is an apt description, and one that does not usually apply to those who are mentally unbalanced. The problem is that individuals such as Kim have the largest of appetites for those things that most of us normally never even experience. Self-worship is one. Totalitarian regimes like Kim's, or Saddam Hussein's for that matter, are not called personality cults for nothing. Another quality which Kim displays in spades is self-preservation, usually witnessed in the form of the brutal treatment used to smother any unorthodox behavior in his own regime. Consider a gruesome tale of misery in the London Times, describing the form of the manner in which North Korean troops handle their countrymen who have escaped to China and then been returned by the Chinese:

"'I've heard it a hundred times over that when we send back a group they stab each one with steel cable, loop it under the collarbone and out again, and yoke them together like animals,' said [a Chinese] army veteran with relatives in service."

Political philosophers once knew how to accurately characterize men like Kim: they are tyrants. The use of that term in the 17th or 18th century would have immediately had enlightened heads nodding in understanding - it is only natural that the absolute power given to a man in a regime such as Kim's would reduce the holder of that power to the worst forms of tyranny.

George Savile, the marquis of Halifax, was a contemporary of the essayist and philosopher Montaigne. He once composed an essay in which he considered "the glittering outside of unbounded Authority," and "nothing but poor and miserable deformitie within," noting that "by aiming to be more than a man, he becomes a Beast."

"And like some creatures that grow fat with poysons, he grows great by other men's miseries; an ambitious Ape of the Divine greatnesse; An unruly Gyant, that would storm even Heaven it selfe, but that his scaling Ladders are not long enough: In short a wild beast rich in trappings, and with all his pride, no more than a Whip in God Allmighty's hand, to be thrown into the fire when the world has been sufficiently scourged with it." *

Halifax's description of tyrants is certainly applicable to the leader of North Korea, and this is exactly why applying the epithet of "crazy" to him is dangerous: it is an inherent simplification of the complex yet twisted personality that tyranny creates.

To dismiss an adversary as "crazy," when in fact he exhibits the tyrannical behavior that Halifax describes, forces us to make and accept strategic arguments that we otherwise would not. The worst of these is to simply say, "to hell with him," assuming that nothing can be done except full-scale war. But there might be other errors as well. We might assume he is capable of acts that he is not capable of, even though he might like to be. We might assume he is incapable of responding to a variety of deterrents, though he might be as shrewd in calculating his own interest as any other actor.

Kim's regime is rightfully called the "hermit kingdom" because it is so closed to the outside world. For any other dictator, loads of experts of all stripes would leap in to describe in detail his every peccadillo. Instead, the discourse tends to portray him as insane. Perhaps the truth is that we know much less about him than we'd prefer, or that we know about many other leaders - Ahmadinejad, for example, has had a sit-down with Mike Wallace. Instead, we might do well to perform a more careful accounting of motivations, incentives, desires, and lusts when considering North Korea's Dear Leader, and we might find that we won't so easily mischaracterize, underestimate, or overestimate him in the coming months - even if we ultimately decide the world has been "sufficiently scourged" by him and he deserves to be "thrown into the fire."

Josh Manchester is a TCSDaily contributing writer. His blog is The Adventures of Chester (

*As quoted in Paul Rahe's Republics Ancient & Modern



We're half a world away - but how do his neighbors perceive him?
He seems to have blown up a dud, following a volley of impotent Taipo-dongs over the 4th of July holiday. The biggest threat he is to us right now is if he supplied radioactive material to terrorists to make a dirty bomb. Whether we see him as crazy or a tyrant is inconsequential.

The real question is how the South Koreans and Japanese see him. The South Koreans seem scared of him as they would be scared of a bully. The Japanese will probably be provoked to the point of providing their own regional deterrence against his future bad behavior, which is a huge step for the Japanese. If the Japanese thought he was crazy, they would militarize and invade. They're taking measured steps to punish him, setting up a framework to contain and manage his despotic behavior. The Chinese are showing that they don't have the power or influence to manage him. They've got nukes and they have a thriving economy and a large and growing military, but they don't know what to do.

Re: We're half a world away
I think the Chinese objective, above all else, is to prevent a united Korea, even if it would take the South a generation or two to absorb the North. I wouldn't expect much action on the part of the Chinese - Kim's nukes are little more than a *show* of independence from China, but he's still their man more than anyone else could be.

If you're thinking in pure geo-political terms and disregarding what would be best for the North Korean peole (Kim strung up from a lamp post).

the tremendous strain that a unification of the two Koreas would inflict on the economy of the South. If the reunification of Germany is any yardstick the process would take decades and cost untold billions. Meanwhile, Chinese economic gains would continue unabated while their competition in the South diverted valuable resources away from economic growth.

In effect, a reunification might be the best thing for China and a economic kick in the teeth for Korea.

Why unify?
If DPRK would join begin a trade policy similar to China, China, ROK and DPRK would benefit.

Because they want to.
I have known a great many Koreans who believe that the greater country, Korea, is artificially divided. Like the German model of East/West.

Many claim that unification is the only possible future for Korea and see no other alternative. Now I know this is not a scientific poll or measure of popular sentiment but it seems to me that at least the South Koreans desire a unification with their Northern kindred. I have no clue as to how the North Koreans think but I assume that they desire the higher standard of living and freedoms the South enjoys.

China holding North Korea would absolutely enrage the citizens of South Korea as well as much of the world community.

That is true
And the south already has a paln to incorporate the north into a unified Korea. As little as 20 years ago I could understand China's desire to not want this reunification; now I can't understand why they aren't the architects of it.

You want a scientific poll? They are out there and an overwhelming majority of South Koreans hold the view you noted. I believe it is around 75%. Supposedly the North Koreans would like to see it as well. But the reason is more personal than economic. There were a lot of families split up in 1950 and they would like to have more freedom to move closer together and communicate.

state motto
the title is an interesting the author aware that this is the motto of the state of Virginia??

No Subject
It's a common motto, not just for Virginia. It means something like 'Thus always to tyrants,' meaning typically that the bearer of the motto will do his best to destroy them. I don't know who first used it - perhaps one or the other of Caesar's assassins might have said it as he plunged in the dagger?

Anyway, Manchester's article makes a good point. We really need to get away from our cartoon conception of evil. It only gets us in trouble, and it keeps us from recognizing it when it's staring us in the face.

What crazy?
"One recent assessment of Kim Jong Il described him as
“Jimmy Carter on an authoritarian tear.”38"

"However quirky Kim Jong Il is, he is not crazy.
He is quite rational, although his calculus of rationality is probably
“bounded” by the specific context of his North Korea environment
and his (mis)perceptions of the conditions inside and outside his
country.48 In other words, Kim seems to make decisions based on
his own evaluation of reality, although his assessment of reality and
decisionmaking calculus are distinct and limited by his own experience
and exposure to the outside world."

I just did a quick google for 'crazy Kim Jong Il'.

A quick survey of the sites agreed that he is not crazy.

So who has been saying he is crazy?

The South Koreans government did the math over unification, and used East/West Germany as a yardstick. They basically determined that comparitively speaking, West Germany got off on the cheap (!!!).

As much as the Government of South Korea in an ideal sense (and a lot of citizens) would find reunification attractive - they don't want to do it at the expense of destroying their economy.

But you are talking government vs. the population
The government knows it will be expensive, but the vast majority of the population are still for the idea.

Well said Josh

Kim Jong Il's mental framework may be irrational, objectively speaking, but within the confines of hs own premises and distorted view of the outside world, he's probably acting logically.

The DPRK's recent behavior is fully in line with what it has been doing in terms of diplomacy since at least Staln's death.

Tyrants are like that..
Kim just fits the normal mold of tyrants way back to ancient times. When you're raised in such a way, then have complete power yourself, you tend to act like that.
But the Chinese don't want to see a reunited korea because they don't like to have powerful neighbours, they prefer to bully them when they can. I think the best thing would be to let the Chinese continue to be the main susidizer of north korea, and that all other countries should cout them off. Now china likes it that n. korea is such a 'militant mendicant' causing grief to the States and its neighbours. But if everyone islolated it, then it would turn out to be a big nuisance for china to keep proping up all by itself. That would sure them off. In any case I don't think kim would lob a nuke at anybody (even if he really has them) becuase he knows that whoever he did it to would make a point of getting rid of him. And like all tyrants he's more interested in personal survival than anything else.

Nature of the Sovereign...
A nation's central government is either weak or strong. If it is weak then its citizens misbehave and its neighbors push the country around.

Every Sovereign practices military capitalism. His ownership and his control of everything within his borders is based on his capacity for violence. A strong government has an enduring ability to inflict physical pain and destruction and a demonstrated willingness to do just that. To his enemies and to his own citizens.

In a democratic republic such as the United States our central government is strong but we have taken control of the military away from the generals. We maintain the army and the police force under elected, civilian administration. When the generals retain control and then some one of them becomes dictator it follows that tyranny is the natural outcome.

Of course, there will always be struggles at the top of such murderous hierarchies. And we all are capable of some serious paranoia. To keep himself on top the long term dictator must be truly ruthless with his enemies, his population and he will launch continuous (fatal) purges among those closest to him. If he is not tough enough for the job then he will be replaced by someone who is. Sovereignty has always worked this way in every civilization. Precisely because it is military captialism (whereas the dominant wealth-creation model today is a more benign financial capitalism). If we understand history we should not be particularly shocked or surprised by this reality.

In all sovereign states (including ours) the population is literally owned by the state and the government does whatever it wants with its own citizens. This, of course, goes way beyond eminent domain.

Kim Jong-il was groomed from birth to take over as dictator and he is completely ruthless with his own people in his incredibly poor nation. Further, he is surrounded by the most powerful players on the World stage all of whom marginalize him as a lightweight and any of whom could simply annex him out of existance. China. Russia. South Korea with the US aboard. And Japan.

Maybe he's pretty bright but the pressure of the job has really gotten to him. Or maybe he's a moron. Nevertheless, he is holding his own with the big boys. His bomb? Whether it's a bluff or not this play is simply part of the game for him. Encouraging us to think he is crazy enough to use such a weapon is an extension of that tactic. However, being ruthless, murderous and paranoid comes with the territory. This does not make him a mental case.

You know, this sovereignty is all-in-all a pretty miserable business. Yet another problem for global society to work on.

Re: That is true
Division keeps North Korea weak and South Korea occupied by the threat posed by North Korea.

China likes weak and divided neighbours - and preferably ones led by brutal tyrants.

And now China (and Russia) are stalling action against North Korea. How predictable.....

Way to go
Congrats to the author, for providing the basis for a very sensible discussion.

TCS Daily Archives