Jacob Heilbrunn

Who Says North Korea Is Bluffing?

Why is everyone assuming that the latest supreme leader of the Hermit Kingdom is bluffing when he says he intends to settle accounts with South Korea and the United States? Apart from Victor Cha in Foreign Policy, the consensus seems to be that Kim Jong Un doesn't really mean anything he says. But maybe he does. Maybe he's spoiling for a fight. As he orders rockets to be readied for attack, the Dear Leader may be out to show that he's not so dear and that he has other things on his mind than hanging out with the eccentric basketball star Dennis Rodman.

It's not like anyone in North Korea could really stop him. The Generals would be hard-pressed to countermand an order to attack. If he lobs some short-range missiles at South Korea, how would America and its ally react? Would they stand by passively? Or would they respond and risk all-out war? In a situation like this the fruitcake has the upper hand, and Kim may just be delusional enough to go for it. The reckless gamblers, the Hitlers who try to overthrow the board and dice of international relations, don't show up that often. Before Hitler it was Napoleon who tried to thwart the natural balance of power. He failed. But it didn't stop either of them from trying. Perhaps young Kim is operating on the same faulty logic, though Victor Cha suggests that it would be premature to conclude that he is insane. Though anyone who runs North Korea, which amounts to a massive concentration camp, must, by definition, have a somewhat different grasp on reality than most other leaders.

Whether or not he actually wants a conflict, the Korean imbroglio also suggests that, like the man searching for his keys under the streetlamp because that's where it's bright, most American analysts have been focusing too much on Iran's efforts to obtain a nuclear weapon and not enough on the country that already possesses them. It's an interesting irony that Iran hasn't really made the kind of threats against America that North Korea has uttered against Washington, but it has been Iran, by and large, that has been the dominant topic of debate over the past year. Perhaps Kim is only seeking to rectify the imbalance by drawing attention to himself. Perhaps he's just in a snit because the U.S. sent several B-2 bombers over the Korean peninsula to drop dummy munitions.

But given the stakes, the U.S. is doing all the right things. Contrary to the prescriptions of some self-described realists, it would be wholly unrealistic for Washington to abscond from the area. It would be deserting an ally. It would effectively cede a sphere of influence to China. And it would be tantamount to deserting Japan, which would be bound to develop, almost overnight, its own atomic weapons. This is not a prospect that Washington could contemplate with indifference.

Still, the country that probably has the most to lose isn't America. It's China. The sight of America being further drawn into the region is anathema to it. But already President Obama is beefing up American defenses against North Korea. Maybe Kim figures time is not on his side. Better to take a swipe at South Korea and the imperialist running dogs sooner rather than later. He is, after all, running a country that doesn't have all that much to lose. The scary prospect isn't that North Korea is playing a game. It's that it might not be playing.

Image: Flickr/(stephan). CC BY-SA 2.0.