Fat and obnoxious though he may be, Kim Jong-un, like his father and grandfather, is no slouch at blinksmanship. The point of the high-stakes game is to see who blinks first. Did America just blink?
Chuck Hagel, the new secretary of defense, postponed tests of a new intercontinental missile, scheduled for this week, because the U.S. doesn’t want to “exacerbate the crisis with North Korea.” The State Department, and now the Pentagon under Mr. Hagel, wants to project sobriety, dignity and reluctance to shout. The Pentagon can test the missile later.
No harm, no foul, and there’s obviously no urgency to get the new missile tested and installed in the American inventory. We’ve got a lot of missiles already. Lowering the decibel count is nearly always a good thing to do.
But if, as everybody in Washington agrees (for once), all the bombast and bluster coming from Pyongyang is just noise, meant only to play the blinksmanship game, it’s still important to make sure the noisemakers in North Korea don’t win that game, either. The North Koreans calibrate these things carefully, and measure the response closely.
All the sobriety, dignity and reluctance to raise the president’s voice has not so far impressed anyone in Pyongyang. Bill Clinton said the United States would not tolerate a nuclear North Korea. George W. Bush said the United States would not tolerate a nuclear North Korea. Barack Obama said the United States would not tolerate a nuclear North Korea.
Big talk, but now the United States is tolerating a nuclear North Korea, where lip-reading clearly frightens no one. Who can blame Mr. Kim, or whoever is pulling his strings, for thinking that Washington is prepared to tolerate a lot?
Anyone who understands anything about the Koreans knows they’re a tough-minded people, who respect an adversary who stands up tall and have little regard for someone who is easily pushed around — or even allows himself to appear to be pushed around. In 2006, when Pyongyang prepared to test an ICBM, two prominent Democrats, former Defense Secretary William Perry and Harvard (!) professor Ashton Carter, who is now the deputy defense secretary in the Obama administration, urged George W. to destroy the missile on its launch pad. He declined, the missile blew up less than a minute into the launch, and the North Koreans went back to work on both their missiles and a nuclear weapon.
Counting on the missile blowing up every time is not necessarily a smart strategy.
The smart strategy this time, certain officials tell the New York Times, is something called “counterprovocation,” or immediate “response in kind,” to impress Pyongyang that Washington and Seoul mean business. Punishment will be swift, and in kind. Such responses can range from a strongly worded protest letter to the editor to unleashing an artillery barrage on a North Korean target.
Kim Jong-un — loosely translated to “Kim the young ‘un” — toned down his imaginative and colorful threats over the weekend and Western analysts relaxed to ponder over who might be pulling his strings. British analysts who talked to the London Daily Telegraph suggest it’s his 66-year-old aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, and her husband, Jang Sung-taek, also 66. Ms. Kim was the daughter of Kim il-Sung, regarded now as “the eternal president,” and she and her husband were recruited by Kim Jong-un’s father to smooth the way for his ascent and to clean him up and make him presentable. Her husband is the vice chairman of the National Defense Commission and is the key link to North Korea’s patrons in Beijing.
They appeared with the Supreme Leader last month at a session of the central committee of the Workers Party, aunt and uncle seated on each side of him, and led the applause when he promised to maintain nuclear weapons as “the nation’s life treasure.” Mr. Kim loosed the fiery rhetoric the following week. Auntie is thought to have ordered the photograph and video footage of her nephew firing a pistol during a target practice.
The aunt disappeared in 2003 and reappeared three years ago, appearing to be more powerful than ever. She is a four-star general in the people’s army, and owns, among other things, the only hamburger restaurant in Pyongyang (where the menu carefully avoids any suggestion of anything American, referring to the burger as “minced meat and bread”).
“Is this a crisis or a Kim-style kabuki?” asks Gordon Chang, author of a new book, “Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes on the World.” He thinks the world will get a hint next week, on the birthday of Eternal President Kim il-Sung, about whether the grandson’s regime is all bark and no bite. But crisis or kabuki, nobody’s any longer laughing. A clown with an A-bomb is nothing to laugh at.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.