Washington DC may not exactly be quaking in dread this early spring weekend at the prospect of a missile attack on the city, as threatened by North Korea. But the rarely precedented bluster and bellicosity from Pyongyang baffle and alarm the US officials and experts who have grappled with the country's erratic behaviour for decades.
These latter are pretty convinced that the tough talk is above all intended to beef up the warrior credentials of the untested and inexperienced leader, Kim Jong-un, for both a domestic and a foreign audience. Kim, let it not be forgotten, is the youngest head of government in the world, aged either 30 or 31 (that uncertainty alone testifies to how little the West knows about the workings of the hermetically sealed North). "North Korea is in a mindset of war, but North Korea is not going to war," an unnamed senior Obama official told CBS News yesterday in response to the latest verbal salvoes. And Washington is certain that, despite its recent successful satellite launch and nuclear test, Pyongyang is years from being able to place a nuclear warhead on a missile that can reach the US mainland.
What really worries the North's neighbours and the US is that, with tensions so high in the region, even a small incident could quickly escalate. For while confrontations with North Korea over its nuclear programme have been occurring regularly since the early 1990s, rarely have there been so many ingredients for trouble as now. Kim's regime appears genuinely angry over the sanctions imposed by the United Nations after its 12 February underground test, the latest and most effective of the three it has carried out since 2006. The reason is not so much the sanctions themselves. These will have little practical impact, given the regime's isolation already. In the past, however, provocations by the North have drawn a carrot-and-stick response from the West. This time it has been all stick, in the shape of sanctions backed even by China, normally North Korea's most reliable backer, and no carrot. There has been no suggestion of a revival of the six-nation negotiations last held five years ago, let alone of what Pyongyang most covets, direct talks with Washington.
Spring, moreover, is the traditional crisis season, as South Korea and the US, which has 28,500 troops in the South, hold annual joint exercises. Three years ago this month, the North sank a South Korean corvette, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. This time the Pentagon upped the ante by ostentatiously sending two B-2 stealth bombers to take part – just weeks after it announced it was strengthening its anti-missile defences in Alaska in answer to the North Korean threats.
One sign that Pyongyang's talk is mere bluster is the continuing operation of the Kaesong industrial park, run by the South and vital for North Korea's feeble economy, and located six miles north of the Demilitarized Zone. But no one is sure. Sooner or later, if the brinkmanship continues and China remains unable – or unwilling – to exert its influence, Kim Jong-un will have to do something, if only to maintain his credibility.