There are two schools of thought about what lies behind North Korea’s increasingly frenzied posturing. The first goes like this: the rhetoric emanating from Pyongyang – including calls to “break the waists of the crazy enemies [and] totally cut their windpipes” – is no worse than their decades-old ritualistic promises to turn South Korea into a “sea of fire”.
What we are witnessing, according to this theory, is nothing more than an inexperienced leader (Kim Jong-un has only just turned 30) shoring up his power base at home, testing the resolve of a newly elected South Korean president, and lashing out at the latest round of US sanctions and joint US-South Korean military exercises.
The second approach is to caution that this time, it’s different: North Korea has carried out a third nuclear test, formally repudiated its armistice with the South, cut a military hotline, restarted the plutonium-producing Yongbyon reactor, and stopped access to the joint North-South Kaesong industrial zone – which had been allowed to operate through even the worst crises in recent years. What is more, we have little understanding of how the relationship between the leader and his generals has changed since the opaque transition from Kim Jong-il – someone who knew the tacit rules of a showdown with Seoul – and his son.
How should we arbitrate between these two views? We could start by distinguishing between fantasy and fiction. The Prime Minister warned yesterday, in an article for The Daily Telegraph, that North Korea was “a continuing, and growing, nuclear threat”. But he picked his words carefully, aware that this was not yet “a reality”.
Simply put, North Korea cannot mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile and then deliver it to the US mainland. When Kim Jong-un posed last week with missile strike plans displayed in the background, arrows streaking across the Pacific to American cities, those might as well have been lines daubed on a game of Risk. Pyongyang might be able to hit Japan, South Korea, or some nearby US bases, but even this veers to the implausible, given the plethora of land-based and ship-borne missile defence platforms that the United States has deployed in recent days and years.