North Koreans attend a rally against the U.S. and South Korea in Nampo, North Korea, April 3, 2013, in this picture released by the North's official KCNA news agency in Pyongyang on Wednesday. The Korean characters on the sign read, "Safeguard to the death". Reuters/KCNA
North Korea greeted 2013 with a bang (or several of them), not the dying whimper that Beltway officials and pundits had hoped for—and have been predicting ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall. In December, Pyongyang launched a long-range missile that, after many failures dating to 1998, got the country’s first satellite rotating around the earth. A couple of months later, North Korea detonated its third atomic bomb. Then, as the annual US–South Korean war games got going and a new president took office in Seoul, the North let loose a farrago of mind-bending rhetoric, bellowing that events were inching toward war, renouncing the Korean War armistice of 1953, and threatening to hit either the United States or South Korea with a pre-emptive nuclear attack. In between, Chicago Bulls great Dennis Rodman brought his stainless-steel-studded, tattooed and multi-hued six-foot-eight frame to sit beside “young lad” (as the vice chair of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff described the North’s new leader) Kim Jong-un at a basketball game in Pyongyang. As the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up.
The Republic of Korea, one of the most advanced industrial states in the world, was, according to Pyongyang, a “puppet of the US imperialists” led by a “rat” named Lee Myung-bak; if he was on the way out, the incoming president, Park Geun-hye, brought something new, a “venomous swish of skirt,” to the Blue House in Seoul. As if the North weren’t hated enough (it ranked fourth in a 2007 global index of unpopularity, albeit behind Israel, Iran and the United States), it added blatant sexism to its repertoire—in Korean, this phrase is used to taunt women deemed too aggressive.
If the North’s heated rhetoric set some kind of record, the approach was hardly new. Nothing is more characteristic of this regime than its preening, posturing, overweening desire for the world to pay it attention, while simultaneously threatening destruction in all directions and assuring through draconian repression that its people know next to nothing about that same world. Twenty years ago, when the Clinton administration brought maximum pressure on the North to open its plutonium facility to special inspections, the North railed on about war breaking out at any minute; that 1993–94 episode likewise sought to shape the policies of an incoming South Korean president, Kim Young-sam. Almost forty years ago, when Jimmy Carter was president, North Korea shouted itself hoarse about the peninsula being “at the brink of war.” The difference is that, in past decades, specialists read this stuff in Korean Central News Agency reports that arrived weeks late, by snail mail; today, it gets instant Internet coverage, which the North is exploiting to the utmost (while the masses still have no Internet access). The daunting part, of course, is that the North relies on the good sense of its adversaries not to take its incessant warmongering racket seriously.
Today, the rhetoric is designed to do three things: to confront President Park with a choice of continuing the hard line of her predecessor or returning to engagement with the North; to raise the stakes of Obama’s stance of “strategic patience” (which has not been a strategy but has certainly been patient, as the North has launched three long-range missiles and tested two nuclear bombs since Obama’s 2009 inauguration); and to present China, which for the first time worked with the United States to craft the most recent UN sanctions against the North, with a choice—enforce the sanctions at the risk of events spinning out of control, or return to its usual posture of voting for sanctions and then looking the other way when the North violates them.