Korea came to be divided in 1948, thus before the Korean War began. That division came about because the two victors of World War II, the Soviets and the United States, divided the country into uneven halves: the bigger but mountainous North and the more advanced but smaller South. The victors, to be sure, would rapidly evolve into ideological opponents. But perhaps the more telling part of the situation was that the first of the Kims to which my title refers, Kim Il-Sung (1912-1994—Kim is the last name), became the premier of North Korea in 1948. Something in his genes or makeup—together with the ideological conflict which the division of Korea represented—has produced one of the more curious phenomena in international relations: here is a tiny country, representing 0.35 percent of the world’s population; it exist in a kind of independence by using now one and now some other of the Great Powers of the world to side with it (more or less half-heartedly always), so that it can remain unaligned—while the ruling class, i.e. the Kims and their followers, can live in luxury while the population is poor.
Concerning that poverty, let me contrast South and North Korea. The North has more land (120,540 square km) the South has less (100,210 sq km). The North has fewer people (24.9 million), the South has more (50.6 million). The north has a GDP of $15.4 billion ($621 per capita); the South has $1.39 trillion ($27,513 per capita).
Concerning the Kims, they have been able to retain power over three generations. Kim Il-Sung was followed by his son (Kim Jong-il (1941-2011)) and by his grandson (Kim Jong-un, born 1983)—and the Young One seems as able as his elders in playing the same game of chicken, threatening the Great Powers—and the rich Korea to his south; this has kept the population poor, in great anxiety of war or terror, and the Kims in regal comfort.
Kim the First exploited tensions between China and the Soviets; Kim the Second oversaw the development of nuclear weapons—permitted to do so because firm action to prevent it would have involved high risks of war between the U.S., China, or Russia. Kim the Third, well aware of what the real game is, is now making his own contribution by exploding what may or may not have been an H-bomb.
The Three Kims are a fascinating phenomenon: how to exploit the tension between great powers by playing a game of nuclear arms. Such tensions, evidently, are built into collective human experience and cannot be put to rest no matter how the world changes. The situation now is vastly different than it was in 1948, but the Korean situation is unchanged. Global conflict, to be sure, is also in the genes, albeit in the collective genes. The last thing the Kims will ever do is use their weapons in warfare. Why do I say that? If they ever did, the Game of Kims would abruptly end. In the meanwhile, China might be persuaded to act more energetically by being granted certain title to the islands it is building in the South China Sea. But that could not be done without transforming the uneasy balance in Asia. Meanwhile the Jong-un is still young. He already has a daughter. Will a Kim the Fourth be soon waiting in the wings for yet another round of this game?