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.
Last week, in a leak that was either deliberate or not, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) broke ranks with the rest of the administration and its intelligence agency colleagues by saying that North Korea had made major advances in nuclear missile technology. The DIA, of course, is the selfsame agency that promoted the Iraq nuclear hysteria in 2002-2003, even more so than other agencies, especially the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) and, to a lesser extent, the CIA. An errant, classified paragraph in a DIA report called “Dynamic Threat Assessment 8099: North Korea Nuclear Weapons Program (March 2013),” released to Congress and then highlighted by a Republican member, Representative Doug Lamborn, said:
DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles, however the reliability will be low.
Immediately afterwards, both the Defense Department and James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, tried to quiet things down. Said the DOD spokesman:
It would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully tested, developed or demonstrated the kinds of nuclear capabilities referenced in the passage.
North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear armed missile.
Traveling through Asia last week and this past weekend, Kerry first sought China’s assistance to deal with their wayward ally, and then properly proposed diplomacy to calm the situation. According to the New York Times:
Secretary of State John Kerry said Sunday that the United States was prepared to reach out to Kim Jong-un of North Korea if he made the first move to abandon his nuclear weapons program.
And he suggested that the United States might abandon its plans to beef up missile defenses:
The president of the United States deployed some additional missile defense capacity precisely because of the threat of North Korea. And it is logical that if the threat of North Korea disappears because the peninsula denuclearizes, then obviously that threat no longer mandates that kind of posture.
But denuclearization is, it would seem, a long way off. Kim may or may not want to talk—according to unofficial, tattooed envoy Dennis Rodman, Kim wants a call from Obama—but the United States can’t wait for a commitment from Kim that he will halt or eliminate his nuclear program before it talks to Pyongyang.
Unlike the fabricated crisis over Iran, North Korea is closer to being a real threat. Iran has no nuclear weapons, it has no long-range missiles, its enriched uranium is mostly contained in fuel rods for its research reactor that can’t easily be reconverted into bomb fuel, it is cooperating closely with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and so far there’s no sign that it has either militarized its program or decided to make a bomb. In contrast, North Korea does have a bomb, it is working on an advanced missile program, and its dictatorial regime is far more centralized than Iran’s quasi-democratic, multipolar one. Maybe all that the Young ‘Un wants is attention. If so, he’s got it.
As North Korea and Iran continue in their traditional bogeyman roles, Barack Obama is being pressured to intervene in Syria, Robert Dreyfuss writes.