North Korea has launched three intermediate range ballistic missiles in the last two weeks. Each one was a failure and ended in an explosion or crash. The UN Security Council has banned such tests and issued a warning about increasing sanctions if such misbehavior continues. Indeed, there might be worse trouble in store. Many expect North Korea to conduct another nuclear test, its fifth. On May 6 the country is holding the first congress of its ruling Workers’ Party in 36 years. The dictator, Kim Jong-Un, would surely like to have a dramatic military success to show off rather than these failures.
“Warfare,” writes Sun Tzu, “is the art of deceit.” One might add, “and the art of boasting.”
In his militaristic bluster, Kim Jong-Un is reminiscent of any number of history’s tyrants. But the sheer theatricality of his actions, with weapons tests timed to domestic political events and with contempt for international sanctions brandished proudly—recalls the inventors of the theater, the ancient Greeks. The Greeks had no shortage of tyrants, and they ran the gamut from literary pretension to martial swagger. Consider two examples of the latter.
In the fourth century B.C., when the two great states Athens and Sparta, both constitutional regimes, each suffered decline and defeat, strongmen sprung up like weeds. Think of men like Jason of Pherae (d. 370 B.C.), the ambitious tyrant of a city on central Greece’s plains. Talented, driven, violent, creative, and flamboyant, Jason displayed his idea of diplomacy: boasting about his army and threatening foreign leaders to submit or else. He was known for putting on a suit of armor, taking out his mercenaries on daily exercises, and dishing out rewards and punishments. He justified his bad deeds by saying “we need to do wrong in little ways in order to do good in big ways.” And he offered a simple explanation of why he was a tyrant: he didn’t know how to do anything else, he said—he would go hungry otherwise.
Then there was Lycomedes of Mantinea, a city-state in the highlands of the Peloponnesus. He was a wealthy aristocrat and no tyrant, but like Jason, he too paraded his military power. Lycomedes told his people that they were the bravest and most numerous of the Greeks, that they had the strongest bodies and made the best mercenaries. They responded with pride and thought that, “he alone was a man.”
Surely Kim Jong-Un too would like to trumpet his military triumphs and see a proud people cheer his mettle. But fizzled missiles do not send a message of manhood. No wonder that there are fears of a North Korean nuclear test. Jason and Lycomedes liked big weapons too. In fact, Jason’s son and eventual successor, Alexander of Pherae, supposedly worshipped the spear—with which he killed his uncle and seized the tyranny—as if it were a god.