From the hysterical TV portrayals of goose-stepping North Korean troops, breathless news reports of North Korean warnings of war, and maps depicting the range of imminent missile launches (complete with retired U.S. generals explaining the targets), you might think there is a crisis on the Korean Peninsula. But there is no crisis, only a farce.
This time around, it is louder and more melodramatic. But we have seen time and again North Korea throwing a political tantrum in response to annual U.S.-ROK military exercises or the latest round of UN Security Council sanctions in response to Pyongyang testing a nuclear device or launching a missile.
The notion of a “crisis”—as in the 1962 Cuban Missile crisis—is nonsense. The world is not on the brink of an imminent nuclear confrontation. North Korean troops and artillery are not about to pour across the Demilitarized Zone.
This is all nothing more than political theater. Kim may be dangerous, but he is not crazy: North Korea is not suicidal. Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests are not really “provocations.” They are part of a systematic military program that North Korea has been working on for more than forty years to obtain nuclear and missile capabilities. Diplomatic concessions in the past have affected the timing and perhaps the amount of missile and nuclear tests. But they have gone and will continue to go forward because the North Koreans want to gain such weapons.
In the past, North Korean actions have been designed to create tensions in order to extract concessions. But the Obama administration and that of the new ROK President Park Geun-hye have made it clear that they have both seen that movie before and are not buying it.
So what is the point of it? The conventional wisdom to explain North Korea’s actions is that this is primarily about a new twenty-nine-year-old trying to consolidate his position by demonstrating how tough and courageous he is to the North Korean military and political elite.
That may be part of the answer. But let me offer an explanation that has been noticeably absent in the sea of commentary on North Korea in recent weeks.
It’s possible that the core reason North Korea’s new leaders decided they needed to whip up a sense of crisis—of a nation under siege and facing impending attack from outside enemies—is because they are insecure and fear a fragile internal situation that is increasingly difficult to control.