In the Arena

The Kim Who Cried Wolf

Isn't it interesting that North Korea's ever more extravagant military threats aren't drawing much media attention in the U.S.? No one really expects a war to break out. But what if one does?

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KCNA / REUTERS

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presides over an urgent operation meeting on the Korean People's Army Strategic Rocket Force's performance of duty for firepower strike at the Supreme Command in Pyongyang, early March 29, 2013.

Isn’t it interesting that North Korea’s ever more extravagant military threats aren’t drawing much media attention in the U.S.?  No one really expects a war to break out. But what if one does?

What if Kim gets so far out on the ledge–with his threats to attack both South Korea and the US–that he can’t back down? It’s unlikely, but not impossible. Kim Jong Un’s current desperation is a direct result of Barack Obama’s response to the traditional North Korean strategy of making threats in order to get the rest of the world to sit down at the table and negotiate, an offer that usually yields some concessions. But Obama’s response is not to respond at all. He’s calling the North Koreans’ bluff. It is a logical strategy, given past results: concessions achieved, the Koreans quit talking. If Obama’s strategy works, Kim’s only rational moves will be to back down and hide away, or back down and negotiate–on our terms.

But he also has irrational options and, again, what if he doesn’t back down? East Asians can’t abide losing face. Men in their 20s can be testosterone-addled, especially when it comes to honor and the shooting of missiles.

This brings to mind the topic of my print column this week: President Obama’s saber-rattling on Iran is a more nuanced and rational version of the same game that Kim Jong Un is playing. He’s threatening military force if Iran moves toward producing an atomic bomb–a threat that, if exercised, would lead to a war that could be far more disastrous than Iraq (or Afghanistan, or Vietnam). It is a mystery to me: Obama’s overwhelmingly rational and excellent foreign policy is marred occasionally by unseemly rhetorical outbursts. His repeated threats that various Middle Eastern dictators “must” step down worked in Egypt and Libya, but doesn’t seem to be having much of an impact in Syria.

Iran can be deterred from ever using a bomb, just as the Soviet Union was. The leaders there are different from Kim: the powerless Ahmadinejad talks crazy, but Iran is a real country, with real assets that can be destroyed, with a major city in Tehran, a country that has learned the lesson of military loss: the 1 million casualties taken in the 1980s war against Iraq. The truth is, Iran’s possibile drive toward a nuclear weapon has more to do with deterring the perceived threat from Israel and the U.S. (and, to a lesser extent, with national pride), than it does with a desire to actually use it.

The President surely knows, after the past 12 years of war, the costs of aggression. I’m confident he won’t do anything foolish in Iran and, to a lesser extent, Syria–but part of that is not saying anything foolish. I wish I could say the same about Kim.

76 comments
SamHaines
SamHaines

"just as the Soviet Union was" If I remember correctly the US wan't the only thing standing between the world and nuclear destruction, it was more that they were half the problem. The Soviets were just as keen to avert nuclear war as the Americans.

JoeAcosta
JoeAcosta

This idiot is going to finish the last of the family's brandy and get a case of stupidity and more than likely get his country all blown to hell,or don't tell me he is bright enough to run a scam on the US and have someone like Obama render to him,and accept his play.Let us hope not we have already enough idiots in charge across the world,we need not allow another one to dictate policy.

sonsofaureus
sonsofaureus

The game of brinksmanship requires two rational actors, both with too much to lose, to remain stable.

North Koreans, as crazy as they seem, are able diplomats.  This is a core competence that has kept them afloat all this time.  They also have the benefit of continuity - every few years, we get new people working on our diplomacy with cabinet changes, but they have the same guys doing theirs.  

What makes North Korea challenging to deal with is that it is very successful at being secretive.  No one knows who pulls the strings there and you can not rule out the possibility that if Kim feels threatened about his own position, he might consider a nuclear options as a take-everybody-down-with-me measure.

If Kim is actually crazy like people suggest, and they who suggest this  are sincere in their belief, then they must push for immediate military strikes on North Korea immediately to neutralize them.  Unlike Iran, North Korea already tested nuclear weapons and are working on miniturizing them to put into missiles.  This is nationalistic hubris - the belief that all people who find themselves in positions opposing America are crazy, fanatical or otherwise flawed in their intelligence.  The opponent sees the chess board too - they don't have a lot of pieces, but they're still playing and are working on getting new pieces (like nukes).  They've made themselves comfortable in this stalemate (apparently, the people making decisions in NK live in luxury) and all they have to do is not lose the game, while nothing short of Desert Storm type of victory is acceptable to the US.

What this shows is the limitation of containment.  Once a dictatorship survives economic sanctions and all the diplomatic pressures that the US can bring to bear, then they are no longer afraid of them.  Plenty of nations suffered through this without their populations rising up to depose their dictators.  There is only the threat of military elimination left, which is significantly neutralized by the presence of nuclear weapons.  We make fun of Castro and his long winded speeches, but he lived out his natural life span, unlike some of our men who sacrificed lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Why do we wonder why ALL of these dictators seek nuclear weaponry, which will make their removal prohibitively costly?  

This is also where the war of choice in Iraq will hurt us, and leaves our saber rattling as just that.  It has already been demonstrated that the US can not fight long wars of attrition in any foreign nation.  If the US military has the trouble it had against shop-keepers and sheep-herders turned insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan, what trouble will we have against a organized military that's been preparing to engage in this kind of insurgency for the past 50 years?  This nation hasn't really mobilized to face an existential threat since WW2, so we need to stop pretending we'll do that any time we see fit.  What it took to win that wasn't a volunteer military of 1% of the population.  It took a national draft, meat rationing, commandeering of private industries to produce of war machines, people buying war bonds with spare income, increased taxation, people who were going to Princeton dodging bullets next to people who were working in the docks- does the US have the stomach still to accept all this again, to remove dictators in nations most Americans can't find on a map?  We have to answer this question honestly as a nation soon as more and more dictators gain nuclear weapons, because there is no stabilizing these populous nations without a lot of manpower and pouring in money for years.

Writerscramp
Writerscramp

When the people in your own country are eating each other to survive, you hype up imaginary threats that some big bad foreign enemy is about to invade, in order to distract your sheeple from the fact you have nothing of actual substance to offer your people. This entire war babble is strictly for consumption inside North Korea, nothing more

Me!
Me!

See, the problem is that Un is just a puppet under the Koreans who helped Il with desicions. Except, these Koreans find that Un is willing to listen to them, which basically puts them in control. With Il, there was never a problem like this, because he knew his power and how to handle it.

saammaaajj
saammaaajj

Hidden peacemaker is no doubt the giant Peoples Reblic of China. Its a definite proxy war of China with Seoul and Tokyo.Chinese do not want to shrink communism letting war in Korean Peninsula.It knows after unification, with Seoul as its capital its pretty hard to go with it.Pyongyang is its  maternal puppet.Next possibility with optimal benefit to china is that, if Korean war goes full-fledged, with destruction of semiconductor industries of South they can enjoy their monopoly.

RobertPreston
RobertPreston

Those who think North Korea is a dictatorship need to read up on the place.  Kim Jong Un does not run the country, it's run by a committee more along the lines of the Soviet Union.  Do you really think they would just give absolute power to a man in his 20s?

How many times have those who insisted that a war would be over quickly been right? Not once, ever, in all of US history.  These people have been on an active military footing for 50 years.  Most of the population cannot recall not being ready for the US to attack.  The subway systems (surprise, they have them) are hardened and 300 feet below ground and that's only part of the extensive system of underground bunkers.  The totality of the level of indoctrination in this country rivals that of WW II Japan.

Afghanistan and Vietnam were much less developed that North Korea when we went to war.  The two longest wars the US has ever been involved in.

Let’s not judge then by their hats.

DarrenLP
DarrenLP

Kim's a foolish dictator

toumanbeg
toumanbeg

"Iran can be deterred from ever using a bomb, just as the Soviet Union was." Goebbels called that sort of statement the 'Big Lie'.

The Soviet Union was controlled by cold-eyed, rational (by their standards) men.  Granted, they were a tad bloodthirsty but that is the sort of leader Socialism produces.  The Mullahocracy in Iran is composed of religious fanatics.  In effect Mr. Klein is claiming to know what god (allah) is going to whisper in the head mullah's ear.  I don't think so.

Mr Klein's plan is to stop a suicide bomber by threats of death.......  Somehow I doubt that plan will work.

On the other hand, Mr. Klein's utter lack of knowledge of Islamic society has led him to a serious mistake about Iran's intentions.  Iran doesn't want to destroy Israel, they want to depopulate Israel.  One fairy tale of lies shared by Muslims is that it was the United States that prevented Muslims from destroying the Jews and reclaiming the land.  Any nuclear weapon developed by Iran will be used on the USA, NOT Israel.  They will nuke either New York or D.C.  Both if possible.


Either would be fine.  That would be the best thing to ever happen to the USA.  At least for the rest of America.  Sorta rough on New Yorkers.  Poetic justice.  The only reason the Mullahs will have a nuke is through the treasonous efforts of the New York media and the Politicians in D.C.  

So it is only right that they pay the price for giving aid and comfort to the enemy. 

tkulaga
tkulaga

If he makes the mistake South Korea will end it in 24 hours or less. The problem I have is if the US shows any support at all...will China enter the frey?

carrigman
carrigman

@psneeze Good article. One hopes China is pressurising Kim to back down but he may fear losing face if he does . A very dangerous time.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

I think the bellicosity in Obama's remarks are more to keep Israel in place more than anything else - with a side of keeping the Republicans placated.

I'm less concerned about Kim Jong Un's pride than I am about the pride of his generals.  I don't think he's ready to pull the trigger yet - he likes his life too much and I'm fairly sure he's aware that he will get to maintain it so long as he doesn't start a war - but if the Generals start thinking he's more trouble than he's worth - or, just as importantly, Kim perceives that they think that - he may feel like his hand is forced.

tgm404
tgm404

I hope Kim's plan includes Pyongyang turning into a sea of molton glass after his first attack.

melonheadx13
melonheadx13

china better spank the little brat's ass before we all get dragged into this nonsense.  and why don't we just get our troops out of there and let the pipsqueak proclaim the heroic victory.  we don't have to go far to still remain ready to back south korea, but neither we nor china have any reason or willingness to fight there.

tommyudo
tommyudo

North Korea is a country full of ugly outdated military hats and bad haircuts. All they really need is for the US or South Korea  to air drop about 20,000 hairdressers inside the country,  and the north will join the community of nations:-)

RosensrRed
RosensrRed

@TIME @JoeKleinTIME waste of money we don't have. We spend too much on military spending already. Blitz them with S. Korea's help & end it.

Simulant
Simulant

I can only hope the military has employed some of our country's best child psychologists in order to deal with Fat Boy.

hrhsar
hrhsar

@TIME @JoeKleinTIME North Korea wants us to a attack them go to war and then rebuild their country that's our reputation

strambotikbikes
strambotikbikes

@TIME what if the whole world press ignore north Korea negative words ? what would happen ?

ABUJAMIL1ST
ABUJAMIL1ST

@TIME @JoeKleinTIME Really what if there's no winners in any war and now days using smart big rockets even more dead god forbid any war

bd9598
bd9598

@TIME @JoeKleinTIME Kim Jong loon wants war and threatens to use Nukes, he must be expecting to receive them Hey, Rodman go play BB with him

BDeathbed
BDeathbed

@TIME @JoeKleinTIME Really there won,t be any war the guy is really a lonely fellow who wants some friends to threaten and talk to

TomMengel
TomMengel

One other problem besides the "Men in their 20s can be testosterone-addled, especially when it comes to honor and the shooting of missiles." is the fact that NK has no real basis for discerning what a "normal" functional society is.  Any country where 70% of the children are underweight and size due to malnutrition and a majority of the people have been brainwashed for generations into absolute total submissiveness to one dictator (or the dynasty he created) may not react the way almost any other country would.  The leadership in NK is centered on a strong military and the defeat of an enemy, and has been for 50 years, and any regard for a progressive society based on even the basic needs of the people have long been lost.  We should keep this in mind and treat the NK leadership like the possible homicidal maniac it may very well trun out to be.

norcalgunners209
norcalgunners209

why the hell does he have a map of california??? I say we send the navy seals and eradicate this short son of a gun... before he makes childish mistakes.

AlexCotman
AlexCotman

Men in their 20s can be testosterone-addled, especially when it comes to honor and the shooting of missiles.


Best sentence ever

MKE.Dave
MKE.Dave

It may be unlikely. You may even think it impossible. But remember, anything is possible when it's Un-possible!

(I keep on waiting for the big reveal that Kim Jong Un is actually an actor paid by the Onion.)

fitty_three
fitty_three

Wow.  It looks like they have Puget Sound targeted on that map!

I'm jittery.  This is worse than when whatsisname claimed the Mighty Iraqi Air Force could strike us in 45 minutes!

Drakna12
Drakna12

@JoeKleinTIME EPA and Obama's war on energy are cancer for the middle class. And then they wonder why the middle class gets poorer!

wandmdave
wandmdave

@toumanbeg Wow, not only do you libel and mischaracterize Iran and many other diverse Islamic societies, which is par for the course for rabid conservatives these days and lost its shock factor even if it is deplorable and pathetic, you also go one to basically straight out say it would be great if anyone would nuke New York and DC.  That just highlights that you've lost any touch with reality whatsoever.  Good luck to you sir and my I suggest visiting a good therapist before committing to any shooting rampages on the infidels on the coasts.

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@tgm404 

Please don't joke about that.  I don't believe that NK has a delivery mechanism for their nukes but they do have a functional detonation mechanism.  That means that the most likely time they would use the nuke is on themselves as a way to prevent SK from taking Pyongyang.

fitty_three
fitty_three

@Simulant  

That actually was the name given to the weapon that was exploded over Hiroshima. Maybe I'm stating the obvious.

sarakat
sarakat

@strambotikbikes @TIME Remember Pearl Harbor warnings that Roosevelt ignored or perhaps 9/11 as Clinton ignored?

nolanmar
nolanmar

War on energy? Under the Obama adminstration oil production is higher than it was under Dubya.

fitty_three
fitty_three

@Drakna12

War on Energy?

You're wearing a suit, I see, but really:

How stupid are you?

outsider
outsider

@Drakna12 @JoeKleinTIME 


I believe that is tax cuts for the rich to pay for those wars, actually. 

SamHaines
SamHaines

@forgottenlord @tgm404  They have ballistic missiles, the question is whether they can produce a small enough warhead to attach to them

TomMengel
TomMengel

@nolanmar Hate to bust your bubble dude, but this admin, has done more to expand our native oil and gas energy production (in the face of push-back from his own party) than almost any other, including the two oil family Bush administrations.  If we keep up with Obama's planned energy script (even including te alternative energy push for those who want to gripe about that) we are on tract to be a net energy exporter by the early 2020's.  So, tell me again how this administration is killing our energy independence??  That or switch the cool-aid your drinking . . .

forgottenlord
forgottenlord

@SamHaines

Actually, the question is whether they can hit the broad side of a mountain.  They have missiles that can be launched, but they have yet to get within a hundred miles of anything they were remotely aiming for.  These guys aimed for space and missed.