What to Make of North Korea?

North Korea is in the news again as they threaten to nuke American cities and destroy the U.S.  Yes, we have gone through this every year for the last 20 years--since North Korea's famines and floods worsened--and yes, they realized that extortion works if you want to receive food and financial aid.  Is this time any different? It's doubtful, but due to the quick ratcheting up of their threats, as well as their moving missiles into place, it's worth looking at what might be going on this time because this time it is not so obvious.

There are 4 possibilities (in order of probability)

1. Feeling ignored, it's another regular extortion attempt as they face famine and bankruptcy, but it's backfiring.

2. China is actually instigating the turmoil, in order to lower pressure with the US and other East Asian nations.

3. There is a power struggle behind the scenes, and a militant wing is asserting itself.

4. They are in such dire straits or insane that the regime  is prepared to start a war.

Let's look at each one individually.

1. Feeling ignored, it's another regular extortion attempt as they face famine and bankruptcy, but it's backfiring.

This is the most likely.  Since the end of the Kim Il Sung years, North Korea has regularly threatened war.  International mediators are sent in, and a deal is worked out in which North Korea gets foreign aid in exchange for calming the war rhetoric.  It's an old, stupid gambit that worked very well until recently.  In the past few years, U.S. administrations have gotten tired of this old act, as have South Korean politicians, and people mainly view it as a waste of time to have the infamous "six party talks."

Coming out of another miserable winter, it's likely North Korea is in dire straits and desperately needs to extort more money out of its enemies.  But the problem could be that the regime has cried wolf so many times, it's simply run out of ways to do it.  Instead of outflanking its enemies (say, striking a deal with Russia or a Gulf State), it resorts to Dr. Evil-like name calling that comes off as ridiculous and over-the-top.  Much like Saddam Hussein's "Baghdad Bob," the p.r. department for the NK regime just doesn't know how to sound scary and credible, hence they've gotten in over their heads this time.  Both the U.S. and South Korea are responding with a strong show of force.

2. China is actually instigating the turmoil, in order to lower pressure with the US and other East Asian nations.

Another possibility is that North Korea's only friend, China, is asking them to stir up trouble so that China can then come out looking like the hero.  Why would they do this?  Because China is currently caught in a tense relationship with Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines and other nations.  China's military (particularly on the sea) has been expanding and they have been making claims on islands that belong to other nations.  All of this has driven these countries more into the hands of the United States and its security apparatus.  Consequently, China is feeling the isolation.  Having their client state NK put on a show that they diffuse, could be an elaborate way of creating a bigger issue that brings the divided parties together.  Chinese Machiavellianism can be something to behold.

3. There is a power struggle behind the scenes, and a militant wing is asserting itself.

I seriously doubt that the 29 year old new dictator Kim Jung Un is behind any of this.  After all, he seems to prefer watching the NBA and hanging out with Dennis Rodman.  This game of high-stakes nuclear poker is something from a Cold War generation of leaders.  This is far beyond his abilities or mentality.  He's a puppet figure dominated by generals and older relatives and is part of an elite class that doesn't want to lose its status in North Korean society.  It's possible that this is an attempt by the puppet masters to make sure NK still has the threat card to play.  Because if they don't, the country is in real trouble.  They desperately need to be feared so that they can be sustained by other countries--particularly China. With so few cards to play, giving up the Dr. Evil shtick really leaves them with nothing but being a source of cheap labor for China.  And they don't like or trust China very much.

4. They are in such dire straits or insane that the regime  is prepared to start a war.  

This is the least likely possibility.  It looks like they have desperately tried to get the Chinese to defuse the situation (the Chinese declined) and they are fully aware that the U.S. and South Korea could utterly destroy them.  However, this is a nation that has been a religious cult (theocracy) for more than 60 years.  It's always possible that one of these poorly educated, mentally ill psychos could have a group of people following them toward destruction. But more realistically, it's a nation of a small group of elites that are addicted to watching foreign movies, doing drugs, and eating expensive caviar.

So how bad would a war be?

First of all, North Korea could probably not successfully launch a nuclear missile.  They have a hard time with basic missiles--they're not accurate, and they don't have great range.  The U.S. also possesses the technology to blow them up before they even leave the silos.

They could launch quite a barrage of artillery over the border at Seoul, but they would be hammered in return and quickly become disorganized and unable to function.

A better approach would be some sort of nuclear hostage drama, such as taking part of the border or claiming to sneak spies into South Korea that are armed with nuclear weapons.  It would be a bluff, most likely.  Even feeding their troops and keeping supplies open would be hard for the most basic military operation.  And I guarantee these will be the most incompetent generals ever to enter into a war.

The dirty secret (or perhaps it's not so secret) is that no one really wants to see a free North Korea.  At this point, North Koreans are incapable of integrating with the modern world.  There would be no lovely integration as there was in Germany between East and West Germany.  This integration would be expensive, messy, and ultimately impossible.  North Koreans have lived in such a bizarre situation for so many decades that they are all brainwashed, traumatized, and/or deathly ill.  A best case scenario would see North Korea having to be kept closed while decades of relief poor into the country.

The more likely "peaceful" outcome would be a massive global intervention of aid and troops that would seem like it is never-ending, as South Korea takes the lead in rebuilding the country.  It will take so long for even the most basic normal society to emerge that Somalia and Syria will look quite functional in comparison.  There will be a day of reckoning for North Korea and it will be unpleasant for the whole world.  This is the one place in the world where a day of nuclear threats is one of the better challenges to face.  And that is truly frightening.