The popular view of Mr Kim, as a megalomaniac poised to rain fiery death on all who displease him, is worse than a misunderstanding – it plays into his hands. Everything he does, all his threats and bluster, his merciless oppression of his own people, and the elaborately ludicrous personality cult around him, springs not from strength, but from profound and irremediable weakness.
Well, for a weak man, he leaves a lot of bodies in his wake.
Even the best-equipped spies cannot see the workings of North Korea’s internal politics, but there are good reasons for believing that the 67-year old Mr Kim is more than usually vulnerable at present. We know with some certainty that he was gravely ill last summer, with something like a stroke. Now there are signs that he is preparing one of his three sons to succeed him.
Hereditary successions in oppressive monarchies are often moments of uncertainty, when courtiers compete to be more on-message, and when the old king feels most susceptible and afraid. Yesterday’s test may have been a calculated attempt to raise the stakes in negotiations with the new US Administration – or it may have been Mr Kim’s effort to win favour with his own military hardliners, the only people who can guarantee his family’s hold on power.