A boy with his first gun can be as deadly as a sharpshooter with a fruit salad of ribbons across his chest, and President Obama and his generals are treating North Korean crackpottery as a genuine threat to peace and good order. But they’re within their rights to get a kick out of Kim Jong-un’s little-boy tantrums, too.
Mr. Kim, even with a large inventory of rusty sabers to rattle, still looks at 29 or 30 like a boy in his first pair of long pants, and with all their wealth and pelf the Kims — grandfather, father and son — should find either a better barber or a bigger bowl. It’s hard for anyone to take seriously a kid with a haircut that bad. (When the satirical newspaper The Onion called him “the sexiest man alive,” thousands cheered.)
The North Koreans have a talent for making deadly mischief, blowing up civilian airliners, capturing gunboats, shelling South Korean offshore islands and once, in 1983, dispatching agents to Burma to plant three bombs that exploded and killed 17 visiting South Koreans, including four Cabinet ministers. Their actual target, then-President Chun Doo-hwan, might have been killed, too, but his motorcade was delayed in traffic and he missed laying a ceremonial wreath. So the little dictator with the jarhead haircut is probably capable of starting a war.
Just what’s in the mind of the North Koreans is hard for outsiders to fathom. Tall tales and wild threats — Pyongyang regularly vows to turn South Korea into “a sea of fire” — seem to be the work of geeks and nuts, but the terror administered from the top is so pervasive that even officials who know better are afraid to let on that they’re skeptical of the nine foolish things they have to repeat before breakfast. When Mr. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, picked up golf clubs for the first time, he shot 11 holes-in-one. His spokesman said he hoped to get the other seven holes on the next outing. Kim Jong-il was not the first golfer to take an occasional mulligan and turn in an exaggerated scorecard, and no one in Pyongyang thought the story fanciful.
Tall tales, brash bloviation and idiotic insults, in fact, are Pyongyang’s only exports. Several years ago, I was invited to take several editors and correspondents from The Washington Times to Pyongyang for an 11-day tour. We were entertained at a lavish dinner, with several choice cuts of mystery meat, on our last night in town. When it was time for the ritual exchange of toasts, our host, the foreign minister, delivered a 25-minute diatribe against the U.S., laced with insult, contempt, disdain, calumny, scorn, insolence and taunt. In my return toast, I told them that beautiful downtown Pyongyang reminded us of a popular American television program, “The Twilight Zone.” Then, since our hosts had abandoned the ritual of mutual toasts of the heads of state, I asked our hosts to join me in lifting a glass only “to the president of the United States.”
Bloviation or not, the rest of the world has to listen to Mr. Kim and act accordingly. Even the Chinese, the only friend Pyongyang has in the region, are telling him to put a sock in it. So are the Russians, who rarely miss an opportunity to needle whoever’s in the White House. Mr. Kim and his generals have a missile, the Taepodong, which would be capable of reaching Alaska and Hawaii, though it has a short and shaky history in flight tests. The Taepodong probably couldn’t reach Los Angeles, Washington or Austin, Texas, which Mr. Kim has said are his first targets of choice.
His missiles probably pack little punch, but Mr. Kim has other weapons that do. He has more than 1 million men under arms, with, according to Washington’s estimates, 27 infantry divisions, 3,500 battle tanks, 10,000 heavy artillery pieces, 7,500 mortars, 10,000 surface-to-air missiles and 11,000 air-defense guns. His air force consists of 605 combat aircraft, though mostly old Russian MiGs. And the navy can go to sea with several hundred ships, though mostly of smaller sizes. Everything is deployed close to the demilitarized zone, and Seoul is duly nervous to be within artillery range.
The South has a smaller inventory of nearly everything, but it nearly all works, with no shortage of spare parts and no worries about fuel. The North has few spare parts for its aging machines, and a scarcity of fuel. Best of all, Seoul has America on call. To make this point, the Pentagon dispatched two F-22 Raptor stealth fighters to South Korea over the weekend. These are the most advanced fighter planes in the world, shaped like boomerangs with a profile dark and sinister against a cloudy sky, enough to make a boy playing with guns think twice about shooting out streetlights.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.