After two decades of provocation, the latest rabid bluster emanating from Pyongyang may sound like business as usual. But a variety of reasons makes the current behaviour by North Korea more alarming than past outbursts.
For one thing, there are relatively new and untested leaders in both halves of the divided peninsula. Park Geun-hye has been South Korean President only since 26 February, while the young Kim Jong-un remains an unknown quantity.
For another, its February underground nuclear test, following December’s successful launch of a satellite, may have brought the North closer to the goal that genuinely scares the West, a nuclear warhead small enough to be carried on a long-range missile. Despite the unending barrage of propaganda, the conventional threat posed by the North has diminished. South Korea’s forces, though smaller, are much better-equipped and armed and supported by 28,500 US troops based in the country (some of them in the capital Seoul, which Pyongyang is again threatening to turn into “a sea of fire”).
But a genuine nuclear capability would transform the equation. Exactly how near the North is to a functioning missile, no one outside a small group of top officials inside the closed country knows. But in 2009 the country was estimated to have up to a dozen nuclear devices. Four years on, and with both plutonium and enriched uranium programmes running, Pyongyang surely has more.
And whatever else, the pace of the provocations is quickening, and China, the one power that has leverage on the North, currently seems unable (or unwilling) to use it. As always North Korea craves attention. But it may believe that its apparent nuclear advances merit new economic and diplomatic concessions from the West in return for Pyongyang promising henceforth to behave. This time those concessions haven’t been forthcoming, and the North seems genuinely angry.