Kim Jong Un waves during a mass meeting at a stadium in Pyongyang. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan, File Photo.)
Happy Birthday, Kim Jong Un! Now, calm down.
So far, at least, the Young ‘Un resisted the urge to fire a missile off for his birthday. While it’s fair to hope that he’ll continue that restraint and join talks that Secretary of State John Kerry has suggested, the North Korean leader gives the term unpredictable new meaning, so it’s entirely possible that the simmering crisis in the Koreas could escalate.
The conventional wisdom among the Obama administration and various former national security officials is that even if North Korea does fire its missile, it will be the exclamation point ending the current flap, allowing Kim to thump his chest and call it a triumph before seeking some resolution to the mess. But maybe not. Even if the United States doesn’t shoot down the missile, which would spoil Kim’s party, it could be the prelude to further escalation, too, given Kim’s volatility. And even a small-scale escalation—say, something like an artillery or torpedo attack on a South Korean position, which isn’t without precedent—could trigger a South Korean and US response, leading to an escalation spiral.
So far, the Obama administration has downplayed the urgency of the North Korean threat in the immediate term, but at the same time it has responded militarily by dispatching stealth bombers, carrying out military exercises, and talking loudly about new missile-defense systems. Why, exactly, the United States needs to tout missile-defense systems that won’t be in place for years and may not work anyway, rather than quietly install them, isn’t clear. North Korea does not have missiles that can strike the United States, and it does not have the ability to miniaturize whatever nuclear bombs it does have to put them in a missile warhead, anyway. So the crisis, to the extent that it’s worrying, is mostly confined to the Korean peninsula.
Indeed, in its threatening maps and targeting plans, North Korea apparently confused the location of the US-based NORAD command center based in Colorado Springs, locating it instead somewhere in Louisiana.