Whether an H-bomb or an A-bomb, N. Korean nuke test is about Kim

By Foster Klug ,AP

SEOUL — It’s a single image released by an enormous propaganda apparatus, showing a note handwritten by a dictator. And it contains a telling clue to the mindset behind North Korea’s surprise and disputed claim to have tested its first hydrogen bomb.

The Dec. 15 note from Kim Jong Un calls for a New Year marked by the “stunning sound of the explosion of our country’s first hydrogen bomb.” The document closes with his signature — almost like a rock star signing an autograph.

The photo, released after the North’s nuclear test Wednesday, points to this conclusion: While the world focuses on how the explosion will resonate beyond the nation’s borders, the whole thing is really all about Kim, North Korea’s third-generation leader.

Four years after his abrupt ascent following his father’s sudden death, analysts are split on whether Kim is coming into his own as a leader, confidently balancing competing interests among powerful military and political camps, or whether he’s struggling to put his mark on a Shakespearean churn of political jockeying and bloodshed that roils beneath the smooth propaganda surface.

Whether Kim is confident or desperate, the note provides a look at the careful calibration behind the nuclear test’s propaganda. The date on the note, from three weeks ago, and the missive’s almost poetic tone are meant to show both deliberation and pride from a leader who approved and orchestrated the test.

The note speaks of making “the entire world look up to” North Korea and the ruling party, while giving no regard to the international outrage the nuclear test was certain to generate, including from China, the North’s most important ally. The test was aimed not at external forces, but at showing Kim’s citizens that he is in full command at an important moment.

John Delury, an expert on Korea and China at Seoul’s Yonsei University, describes the note’s message like this: “Let no one be confused; there’s no factional struggle; the military isn’t telling him what to do.”

Whether that’s a true representation of what’s happening in one of the world’s most secretive governments is another matter, especially regarding the powerful military.

With little diplomatic progress and nearly three years since the last nuclear test, Kim might have calculated that it was time to agree to his military’s push for another. Or, as some analysts speculate, maybe the order was given as soon as scientists were ready to detonate.