North Korea : An Unsettling Roar

Kim Jong Un’s recent bellicose rhetoric aimed squarely at the United States has scaled new heights of brinksmanship. So ferocious has been his performance that the US State Department and the military have deliberately toned down their rhetoric to avoid an escalating war of words that might drive him over the edge.

Among the global hotspots outside the Middle East, such as Senkaku/Diaoyu islands standoff between Japan and China, or the renewed saber rattling over the Falkland Islands, only one has stood on its toes and looked the US directly in the eye and spewed trash – North Korea. Specifically, the new leader, Kim Jong Un – or as I like to call him, Kim III.

It’s a bit of a surprise only because with every new autocrat, there’s seems to be renewed hope that he’ll bring a fresh outlook. Many in the US tingled at every little news item suggesting that Kim III was more westernized, making him, perhaps, a more friendly leader.

Well, that breathing period didn’t last long. Following North Korea’s satellite launch (considered to be a missile test in disguise) in Dec 2012 and the UN’s condemnation and tightening of sanctions a month later, Kim III reacted by scaling new heights of brinksmanship. He seemed almost demented – delusional in his accusations, crazed in his threats. So ferocious has been his performance that the US State Department and the military have deliberately toned down their rhetoric to avoid an escalating war of words that might drive Kim III over the edge. However, not only did they still engage in annual military exercises with South Korea, but they built up their military presence, despite knowing that would be provocative in itself.

It’s like a tightrope walk. Careful! Don’t lean to far towards appeasement. Nor to far towards aggression.

If it weren’t for the intensity of Kim’s rhetoric, it would have been the same old stuff South Korea and its allies have suffered through with his father and grandfather. Like the Middle East, North Korea hangs around as a hotspot. Unlike the Middle East, it’s a hotspot mostly of bluster – although, there have been some deadly brushes with the South Korean military and casualties have been inflicted. Still, there has been no full scale war on the Korean Peninsula in 60 years.

It’s a bit of a surprise that this happened so soon after Kim III assuming leadership. And that may be a clue. Kim is only 30 years old. (If you’re over 30, ponder that for a minute.) On top of that, he’s hardly had any time to prepare for the role. This colors the prevailing opinion – maybe he began this pell-mell charge to the brink of war in order to prove to the military and other power figures that could unseat him that he is worthy his father’s and grandfather’s legacy. It’s left to be seen if, like his forebears, he can back down gracefully.

And backing down seems like a good idea. Kim III has perturbed China, North Korea’s most important ally. His performance has upset the military balance in the region by instigating an increased US presence. Plus it has South Korea talking about developing their own nuclear program. (There is a more esoteric possibility – China might be afraid that these activities are providing the military the chance to reclaim influence over Kim III which it had lost to Kim’s aunt and uncle, now acting as reagents.)

China has publically chided North Korea and is making overtures to the US to help denuclearize the region.

“Denuclearize.” That must take Kim aback. For one motive attributed to Kim was an effort to improve his country’s standing in the world. To be recognized as a military might with long range missiles topped with nuclear warheads. What will happen to him if Chinese diplomacy takes that away from him?

If this crisis was intended to prove his wisdom and manhood to his powerbase, it would backfire if instead it costs North Korea their nuclear arsenal, such as it is.

At the moment, Kim seems to be quieting down. Maybe China’s reaction played a part. But it may be that North Korea is just plain running out of threats. All they have left is to carry them out. And there is serious doubt among US military experts that North Korea has the capability to be a threat to American territories, although South Korea and Japan are still within reach.

So what’s a fangless tiger to do? Roar, then slink away. Repeatedly.

Many North Korean defectors now living in South Korea have expressed that sentiment. They claim that North Korea won’t engage in war because it knows it would lose, and that the country would collapse.

This would explain their insouciance during this war of threats.

For some strange reason, severe food shortages has seldom been mentioned during this crisis. Experts see signs of a worsening famine after years of slightly improving conditions. And recently, the President of Mongolia revealed that the North Korean ambassador asked Mongolia for food aid.

It’s incredible to think that while the country is entering the worse period of privation (usually starting in April) that won’t end until the harvests in September, the military is expending a large amount of resources testing missiles and nuclear bombs. It well may be, as some have asserted, that Kim III is trying to distract his people from their hardships by frightening South Korea and her allies.

Except, the people in the streets of South Korea seem relatively unfazed. Some may profess fear, but many shrug. They’ve been through this too many times before.

For those of us who lived through the Cold War with the Soviet Union, it’s all familiar. It didn’t help to worry about a rain of nuclear bombs that may or may not come. Like the awareness of our mortality which we shove it to the back of our thoughts, so too, the thought of Mutually Assured Destruction became an abstract one for us. It must be the same way for the Korean man in the street.

Unfortunately, it could happen. It could happen that a dictator becomes unhinged and suicidal. And see people only as “collateral damage.” That one possibility necessarily shapes our diplomacy into a judicious mix of tough talk and compromise.

It’s sad to admit that we probably cannot end this crisis without setting the grounds for another similar one. Simple logic and linear thinking won’t work here. There’s no certain course of action that will put an end to this cycle once and for all. Recent history has shown that the end for crazed despots lies in the hands of the citizenry of that country. But that same history has shown that a beleaguered citizenry will take a lot of abuse before it finally revolts.

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