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Petulant Child: North Korea and Chastisement

It is treated as a petulant child, the infelicitous member of the world community, and devoid of fidelity. Fareed Zakaria in The Washington Post, struggling with his crystal ball gazing, tries to find the tempo the DPRK clicks to. He decides that Karl Marx’s remark about history repeating itself a second time as a farce after tragedy requires a third phase: North Korea.

The assumptions, for there are only assumptions, are many. The decisions are not coming from the leader himself, the seemingly child-like steward Kim Jong-Un. No, that would be too much. As with previous ideologies of watching, be it with China, or with the Soviet Union, leadership can be hostages to factions, to cliques, Mikado-like in their ceremonial impotence. The “experts” are, however, often the last to know.

North Korea more broadly speaking is being treated like a child monster. If Kim Jong-Un is still in need of potty training, then the entire state is a delinquent in need of a good chastising. “The most likely explanation for North Korea’s actions,” advances Zakaria, “is that it is trying to get attention.”

Hence, scrapping the armistice with Seoul made in 1953, terminating the hotline to the South, and accelerating its nuclear program. It has also, just to keep things interesting, threatened the United States with a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Such prima donna squealing seems to have come about in response to further sanctions imposed on North Korea after its third nuclear test. No one is pleased.

Behind the caterwauling, other states might be concerned but can hardly be seemed to be surprised. The DPRK plays up; the spectators play along in feigned surprise. In truth, there was very little to the non-aggression arrangements between Seoul and Pyongyang to begin with. Both capitals have been effectively in a state of war since 1953, and various incidents involving combat deaths on both sides have taken place. Ditching an arrangement that was fictitious to begin with is probably the first honest act of this regime. And it has proven utterly terrifying.

Then, the usual suggestions that seem to have gone off in the pantry. Use the China leverage, but do not, however, engage in “serious strategic talks,” as Henry Kissinger warns. The traditional view is that China maintains a crucial hold over North Korea. Press the Chinese to in turn press the North Koreans. Pyongyang has begged to differ, rebuffing the Chinese economic program, refusing to partake in the liberal market reforms that even now are getting a push along in Beijing. Again, the Chinese, being seen as the big brothers, or even the fathers of the situation, may be losing patience, irritated with their younger stalwarts. Are they to be abandoned, speculates Deng Yuwen in the Financial Times?

For Yuwen, the reasons are manifold, not least of all the fact that Pyongyang “is pulling away from Beijing.” Basing relationships on ideology is dangerous to begin with. The strategic link with North Korea for Chinese security is “outdated.” And North Korea has proven to be an enemy of reform. Like Zakaria, Yuwen assumes that Kim Jung-Un has no power to push any significant reforms through as the “country’s ruling group would absolutely not allow him to do so.”

Such examinations – reducing countries and nations to states of unstable mind – are unprovable. What is a sure thing is that the DPRK’s regime has proven to be theatrical and grandiose, taking stock in the view that anything on the international stage that is worth doing is worth doing with a bang and bluster.

The regime expects a reaction in kind, and they are getting a modest version of it. Instead of calming the waters, the US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel announced on Friday that Washington would be boosting its missile defences. Up to 14 anti-missile interceptors are going to be added to a missile defence site in Alaska which already has 30, though these will be done over a four year period. The bark has worked, so much so that the Obama administration has effectively gone back on its decision in 2010 to stop expanding the missile field at Fort Greely. “The reason that we’re doing what we’re doing” surmises Hagel, “is to not take any chances, is to stay ahead of the threat.”

The only thing that is ultimately worth examining are capabilities and consequences. All that the DPRK does is in the realm of exaggeration, behaviour that will only stop once a whole set of demands are met. This is hardly to suggest that it poses no threat, or that is can do no harm. When and if it should attack, it will cause harm. The nuclear feature is merely the joker in the pack.

What such belligerent intentions show is a North Korea keen to play up to an image it has cultivated for decades. It’s habitual. It’s expected. The local situation is dire, and a regime that knows its days are numbered can’t be counted to go quietly into the night. The only question remains whether the noise it makes will prove to be lethal.