Commentary: N. Korea May Have Reason to Be Scared
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may be colorful, but he isn't crazy.
While it may be convenient for the American public to believe that they may be attacked—unprovoked—by the unhinged dictator of an eerily isolated country, the truth of the matter is that the U.S. and its allies have been doing some offensive posturing that has Pyongyang very much on edge. For more on that, read this.
North Korea last week threatened to attack the U.S. and South Korea with "lighter and smaller nukes." This threat has prompted South Korea to warn that it would strike North Korea's military command structure if "provoked." It has also prompted the U.N. to move closer to slapping new sanctions on Pyongyang's banking sector and diplomats.
The sanctions resolution was introduced by the U.S. and China and specifically targets North Korean bankers and overseas cash mules. It also targets diplomats and seeks to lend added strength to air and sea cargo inspections going in and out of North Korea.
While mainstream media outlets are wont to describe North Korea's rhetoric as increasingly bold, the threats and recent tests of long-range rockets and nuclear weapons are not the result of bravado but of fear.
The U.S. and its East Asia allies (namely South Korea) have prepared for a possible offensive against North Korea ever since the death of Kim Jong-il. They have seen a window of opportunity in the instability of the fragile succession.
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Pyongyang has no choice now but to rattle its sabers—and rattling them at traditionally quiet South Korea is the most effective strategy. This is where North Korea can do the greatest immediate damage. If Pyongyang feels that a U.S. offensive is imminent, South Korea will come under attack. At the same time, an attack on South Korea will be the final justification for an all-out U.S.-led offensive on North Korea.
Right now, Pyongyang is hedging its bets on whether the U.S. is willing to sacrifice its ally to this conflict.
Is North Korea confident enough in its nuclear capabilities to act as a deterrent to a U.S.-led regime change effort? The nuclear tests are meant to demonstrate that confidence, but they also demonstrate fear.
The North Korea saga has been a long one, and threats have waxed and waned, always with various talking heads tossing about the idea of a major regional war. What's different this time is that the U.S. has clearly gone on the offensive and pushed Pyongyang into a dangerous corner.
But there's another potential geopolitical twist to this saga: The U.S. "pivot" toward Asia could lend a new importance to North Korea as a potential ally against China if Washington plays its cards right. Certainly, this must be what the most cynically astute minds in Washington are thinking.
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Flipping North Korea from foe to friend would remove a serious nuclear threat from the scene and provide a bulwark against China. To achieve this, the U.S. can take its preparations for an offensive against North Korea to a certain point. This point must be impeccably balanced with the aim of upping the ante in negotiations with Pyongyang. North Korea must be fearful enough of U.S. intentions and capabilities to consider an alternative. China would have to play along because the current threat emanating from North Korea is too close to home and has the capability to engage in nasty nuclear blackmail with Beijing.
It is a very delicate game,though, that could push Pyongyang over the edge and force South Korea into action after which the situation will reach a point of no return.
But there are signs of change in North Korea. Western journalists have been allowed in the country and we are now seeing photographs of ordinary North Koreans on a daily basis, though movements are severely restricted. It could be Pyongyang's attempt to familiarize the Western world with the human shield—the real people who would be the victims of an attack on North Korea.
Amid all of these tit-for-tat threats, we have the visit of former NBA star Dennis Rodman to North Korea, where he was wined and dined by Kim Jong-un,whom Rodman reportedly declared a "friend for life". The trip was the idea of Vice Media magazine, which on 5 April on HBO will air the footage of the visit and an exhibition basketball game played by teams of mixed North Korean and American players, including three Globetrotters.
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How far can "basketball diplomacy" go to bring Pyongyang to the negotiating table? Well, Kim Jong-un and his father are said to be diehard basketball fans and particularly soft on NBA stars. In 2000, Madeleine Albright visited North Korea bearing the gift of a basketball signed by Michael Jordan.
There is an important difference, though, between Albright's basketball and Rodman's grand entrance.The former was tainted by the corridors of power and confined to secret chambers; the latter was a very public display that surely gave North Koreans a taste of "globalization", which historically has a slow but very significant effect. The public will demand more.
In early January, Google executive chairman Eric E. Schmidt visited Pyongyang in an attempt to persuade the authorities to allow more of its citizens to use the Internet, which Schmidt himself has described as the enemy of tyrants.
In the end, it will be the slow momentum of things like basketball diplomacy and the Internet—plus tourism, which is apparently picking up a bit—that worm their way into North Korea and make continued isolation impossible. The explicitly offensive military war games simulating an attack on North Korea best serve as reminders to Pyongyang that there is an alternative—for better or worse—to this dangerous isolation.