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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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.