Pivotal NKorea question: What is Kim thinking?

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In this March 7, 2013 photo released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and distributed March 8, 2013 by the Korea News Service, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, walks with military personnel as he arrives for a military unit on Mu Islet, located in the southernmost part of the southwestern sector of North Korea’s border with South Korea. In his 16 months on the job, Kim’s government has raised fears with unusually aggressive threats against Seoul and Washington, and it’s not clear whether he will be able to pull back, a feat perfected by his late father, considered a master at brinkmanship. The mystery surrounding Kim Jong Un’s intentions has some outsiders predicting nightmare scenarios. AP FILE PHOTO/KCNA via KNS

SEOUL, South Korea — Don’t worry, one popular argument goes, we’ve seen this before. Just ignore Pyongyang’s unlikely threats of nuclear holocaust as you would, say, a child throwing a tantrum.

Others, equally well credentialed, say the prospect of another Korean War has never been higher, with a massive, proud North Korean army incensed by propaganda specialists pumping up an already supercharged atmosphere with increasingly violent threats.

Who’s right? That depends on how you read the country’s young leader, Kim Jong Un. In his 16 months on the job, Kim’s government has raised fears with unusually aggressive war rhetoric against Seoul and Washington, and it’s not clear whether he will pull back, a feat perfected by his late father, considered a master at brinkmanship.

The mystery surrounding Kim Jong Un’s intentions has some outsiders predicting nightmare scenarios.

“What makes this different from past ‘normal crises’ is our lack of insight into … Kim’s mind,” David Shlapak, a U.S.-Asia security analyst at RAND Corp., said last week in a transcript of comments released by the think tank.

The threats have continued, even amid U.S. and South Korean offers of dialogue. On Tuesday, the North’s military Supreme Command warned that unspecified retaliatory actions would happen at any time.

Figure out Kim, analysts say, and you may determine what’s happening in North Korea.

If he follows the playbook of his father, Kim Jong Il, he will tighten the screws just enough, in an attempt to push his adversaries to negotiations meant to win aid. Grandfather Kim Il Sung, on the other hand, gambled everything early in his leadership on a surprise attack on South Korea that resulted in three years of carnage that had U.S. officials dropping hints about the use of nuclear weapons to force a resolution.

Some see the North’s sustained outburst as part of a long-established pattern meant to solidify loyalty at home, while also pushing Seoul and Washington to adopt more Pyongyang-friendly policies. Since the Korean War ended in 1953, they say, the rivals have experienced many cycles of hostility, often punctuated by bloodshed, without things spiraling out of control.

“There are no good reasons to think that Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s young dictator, would want to commit suicide,” Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, wrote last week in a New York Times op-ed column. “Put bluntly, North Korea’s government hopes to squeeze more aid from the outside world.”

The spike in North Korean threats, including a promised nuclear attack on America, has followed U.N. sanctions over its third nuclear test in February and ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills it considers invasion preparation. But so far it has been mostly talk, aside from Pyongyang’s suspension of operations at a factory complex that relied on managers and raw material from South Korea. Military officials in Washington and Seoul have said they do not believe North Korea is preparing for a full-scale attack.

“This time, the tune is being played louder, but that is the only real change,” Lankov wrote.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told U.S. lawmakers last week that tensions were higher in 1968, when North Korea captured the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo and held its crewmen for nearly a year, and in 1976, when ax-wielding North Koreans killed two Americans pruning a poplar tree in the Demilitarized Zone between north and south.

Not everyone is convinced that Kim will maintain the delicate peace that has lasted on the Korean Peninsula for 60 years. That tenuous condition prevailed because “neither side believed that the benefits of starting a major war outweighed the costs,” Korea analysts David Kang and Victor Cha wrote late last month in Foreign Policy.

“The worry is that the new North Korean leader might not hold to the same logic, given his youth and inexperience,” they wrote.

Recent speculation in Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang may be poised to test a mid-range missile that’s capable of reaching as far as Guam prompted this response, in a New York Times op-ed last week, by Jeremi Suri, a University of Texas, Austin, history and public affairs professor: “The Korean crisis has now become a strategic threat to America’s core national interests. The best option is to destroy the North Korean missile on the ground before it is launched.”

Pyongyang is likely to test new South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Cha and Kang write; that could be dangerous, as South Korea “has lost patience and will respond kinetically to any provocation.”

A tough South Korean retaliation to a future North Korean attack, possibly in Yellow Sea waters both countries claim as their own, would force Pyongyang to make a crucial decision.

“North Korea’s bluster suggests that it would meet South Korean escalation with even more escalation,” Bruce Bennett, a RAND defense analyst, said. “The result could be a spiral of escalation that leads to an unintended major war.”

Some worry about the ultimate nightmare: nuclear war.

North Korea is thought to have a handful of crude nuclear bombs. Although there is debate about its nuclear capabilities, many analysts say Pyongyang can’t back up its threats to strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear-tipped missiles. Each atomic test, however, pushes its scientists a step closer to that goal.

In a war, a routed Pyongyang leadership would be forced to either flee or “try to force a cease-fire by playing its only trump card: nuclear escalation,” Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, professors at Georgetown University and Dartmouth College, respectively, wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this month.

They said it’s impossible to know exactly how Kim might use his nuclear arsenal, but added, “The risk of nuclear war with North Korea is far from remote.”

Others suggest that North Korea’s rhetoric is intended not just to draw concessions from adversaries but to lock down power for Kim Jong Un.

Kim, who is believed to be younger than 30, was promoted after Kim Jong Il’s death in late 2011 with lightning speed to top party, state and military positions that his father took years to obtain.

This means his work to consolidate power will probably continue for another year or two, Ken Gause, a North Korea specialist at U.S.-based research organization CNA, said in an interview in Seoul.

Gause said Kim also is likely too young to be “calling all the shots” on his own.

North Korea wants recognition as a nuclear power and direct talks with the United States meant to forge a peace agreement formally ending the Korean War, Gause said. The war ended in a cease-fire that leaves the peninsula still technically in a state of war. Pyongyang, mindful of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the South, presumably hopes a treaty would result in both aid and security guarantees for its leaders.

“One of the reasons that they’re ramping up the tensions so high is to walk the U.S. to the edge of the abyss and show Washington what it looks like,” Gause said. Kim Jong Un may be gambling that the view will be frightening enough to force diplomatic talks on his terms.

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  • $5699914

    For one to think, one has to have a brain, logical, that is.
    KIm don’t have both.

  • http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/ Lucky Luciano

    Probably thinking about changing water to wine or walking on water. The fcktard thinks he’s god.

  • Twister12

    He looks like a pig & think like a pig.

  • Albert Einstien

    these so called experts think that youth & inexperience is a negative trait…youth & inexperience are perfect combination for a great strategy…what is important is resolve…& strength of character amidst a mountain of peril..NERVE of STEEL… that’s what differentiate great leaders from standard leaders..

    It seems the young leader of NK is more POLITICALLY SAVVY than the THRONGS
    of WORLD LEADERS..he just wanted to INVITE WORLD ATTENTION to their
    B-DAY celebration..they just invited the world to celebrate with
    them……NOW the WORLD knows how POWERFUL NK is..that they are NOT as
    impoverished & hungry as the WEST propaganda say, that their people
    are HAPPY & UNITED…..they have DONE these without firing a single
    bullet….they MADE USA & it’s ALLIES respect him & made them a
    laughing stock of the world….and NOW NK can conveniently pursue their
    ADVANCEMENT in ALL aspect of daily life…lol

    DONT dare NK to prove & test their rudimentary nuclear
    capabilities…it will result in WW3…..give them due respect ..that is
    all they want….& there will be peace..they are a sovereign
    nation..it seems the people there LOVE & LOYAL to their leader
    despite of propaganda lodged against them being an impoverish people
    & state ..so what’s the concern of the west…nuclear defense
    program..ALL the superpowers have it..does it mean only the first
    nations has the right to self defense & advancement ?..is it NOT
    GLOBAL RACISM being spread by the WEST ? ..EVERY human being is equal
    & deserve advancement and freedom of thought…same with race &
    nation.. : > )

    • http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/ Lucky Luciano

      LOL. Political savvy? Well thanks to his MENSA Grade IQ, US has more justifiable reasons to stay in the SEA now. Respect is different from fear.

      • Albert Einstien

        he must be a student of sun tzu & machiavelli…

        Machiavelli: better to be feared than loved

        sun tzu: The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.

      • http://whywontgodhealamputees.com/ Lucky Luciano

        Student of Sun Tzu? Sun-Tzu lived around 500 BCE.

    • $5699914

      Your logic borders to absurdity.

    • jgl414567

      You have the same mentality as Kim Jong Un and that is of an insane murderous despot. Shame on you!

  • $26149191

    China’s robot cannot be controlled by his creator. Chinagooks are the most ignorant people in the world.

  • BOYPDAF

    Sa probinsya namin ang tawag dito ay puro satsat,dada ng dada ayawa namn gawin..to portray na nakaktakot siya pero reality is duwag,why Kim is very provacative and yet he cant actualized his threat???

  • speaksoftlylove

    Kim Jong Un is thinking nothing as in “wala lang.” That guy cannot walk his talk for fear of being pulverized to Kingdom Come.

    You should be afraid of earthquakes. The occurrence of major earthquakes has become extremely alarming. This is the real threat and it strikes you wherever you are “without a warning.”

  • jgl414567

    Call the bluff of this insane despot and have him assassinated so that North Korea will finally be free!

  • rj

    Randy David’s column “The continuing tragedy of a divided country” offers a different perspective on the issue.

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