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What if North Korea is Serious?

North Korea appears to be acting crazy again. This week we’re waiting to see if Pyongyang will carry out its promise to fire a Musadan missile which is theoretically capable of flying 2,180 miles before detonation.

I say North Korea appears to be acting crazy because making scary-sounding noises and threats like an out of control adolescent in desperate need of attention has been its modus operandi for as long as I can remember.

It’s a well-established method of international blackmail. Step one: yell like a belligerent lunatic and make the world tremble. Step two: sit at the table for some cool-down talks with the United States government. Step three: get fistfuls of concessions and aid.

Surely North Korea’s young new god-king Kim Jong Un learned this from his late father Kim Jong Il. He learned everything about internal and external politics from his dad.

Only he’s acting a little bit crazier than his dad. His government is warning foreigners to leave South Korea. He recently threatened to scrap the 1953 armistice that turned the hot Korean War into a cold one. Then he said he’s going to abandon the joint declaration on the de-nuclearization of the region.

The Norks even released a new video depicting missile strikes on the White House and the capital building in Washington DC. You can watch that video here. I don’t speak Korean, but to say the narrator has a hysterical warmongering voice is putting things lightly. Never mind the ludicrous and cartoonish music. Watch and listen to that and imagine how freaked out the planet would have been had the Bush administration produced anything like it.

I’m speculating here—no one can possibly know the mind of this man—but mini Kim most likely thinks he has to appear more dangerous than his dad or the rest of the world won’t take him seriously. He’s young, green, and untested. Every foreign policy professional who deals with East Asia for a living knew well in advance to expect this. Predictable staged outbursts are neither scary nor dangerous. How easy it would be for Washington and Seoul to just blow him off.

So he’s ramping things up, yelling a little bit louder, behaving in a way that appears erratic and delusional and possibly even insane. It’s still theater, but like a junkie who must continually increase the dose, his government needs to look freakier than it used to just to achieve the same result. That’s what’s happening.

Probably.

Kim almost certainly isn’t serious, but what if he is? How would we know? His attention-seeking theatrics are identical to the behavior of a lunatic hell-bent on blowing the region apart. If war breaks out next month, everyone who has been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the Korean Peninsula will slap their forehead and see, with the clarity of hindsight, that every warning we could possibly need, want, and expect was right there in front of us.

The North Korean military is nothing like Saddam Hussein’s or Moammar Qaddafi’s. Pyongyang has such an enormous array of artillery batteries targeting South Korea (the capital, Seoul, is only 30 or so miles away from the border) that hundreds of thousands of people could be killed over the weekend. North Korea would eventually lose at the hands of South Korea and the United States. It would be finished forever as a state. But the cost in lives would be unspeakable.

The regime is like a honeybee. It can sting only once, then it dies. But it’s like a honeybee the size of a grizzly bear.

It’s a little bit hard to take the threat seriously, not only because North Korean threats have been empty for decades, but because it’s hard to imagine total war involving the United States happening anywhere. The U.S. hasn’t been involved in a catastrophic conventional war with a “near peer” even once since I’ve been alive.

All the world’s recent wars have had on at least one side a belligerent that is not yet integrated into the modern international system. Slobodan Milosevic, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, Moammar Qaddafi, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi…these guys were not part of the club that meets in Brussels, New York, and Tokyo. They were either holdovers from the violent mid-20th century, or throwbacks to the 13th or even the 7th. Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, young though he is, is also a dinosaur.

But so is Kim Jong Un. It’s hard for us to imagine a huge war actually happening, but is it for him? He runs the most over-controlled militarized state in the world. Pyongyang is still Stalinist. It hasn’t reformed an iota since the time of Joe Stalin when horrifically destructive conventional wars were as common as breakfast. North Korea is a remnant of the totalitarian side of the violent mid-20th century. Its rulers are still stuck in the mindset that killed millions and millions of people. A hideous conflict is far less unthinkable to them than to us. Which makes it slightly more likely to happen.

Even so, it probably won’t. I’m not worried about it. I’m certainly not losing sleep. Easy for me to say, I suppose, since I’m not stationed on the DMZ tripwire, but I’m pretty sure if I were that I still wouldn’t lose sleep. I slept just fine in Baghdad in 2007.

But those who live there and are stationed there are surely gazing at the northern horizon and up at the sky a little more often.

Postscript: Don’t forget. I have books. Four of them now that my novel, Taken, has been released. I get a royalty check every month that includes money from every single copy that sells, so please, help me pay my mortgage, fatten your bookshelf, and order some for your friends!

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