North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may be colorful, but he isn’t crazy.
There is logic behind the intensified war rhetoric, and while it may be convenient for the American public to believe that they are about to be attacked unprovoked by the unhinged dictator of an eerily isolated country, the truth of the matter is that the US and its allies have been doing some offensive posturing that has Pyongyang very much on edge.
North Korea on Tuesday threatened to attack the US and South Korea with “lighter and smaller nukes”. This threat has prompted South Korea to threaten to strike North Korea’s military command if “provoked” and the UN to move closer to slapping new sanctions on Pyongyang’s banking sector and diplomats.
The sanctions resolution was introduced by the US and China and specifically targets North Korean bankers and overseas cash mules. It also targets diplomats and seeks to lend added strength to air and sea cargo inspections going in and out of North Korea.
While mainstream media outlets are wont to describe North Korea’s rhetoric as increasingly bold, the threats and recent tests of long-range rockets and nuclear weapons are not the result of bravado, rather of fear. (Related Article: North Korea: Preparing for War)
The US and its East Asia allies (namely South Korea and Japan) have been preparing for an offensive on North Korea ever since the death of Kim Jong-il. They see a window of opportunity in the instability of the fragile succession.
Pyongyang has no choice now but to rattle its sabers--and rattling them at traditionally quiet South Korea is the most effective strategy. This is where North Korea can do the greatest damage, and if it feels that a US offensive is imminent, South Korea will come under attack. At the same time, an attack on South Korea will be the final justification for an all-out US-led offensive on North Korea.
Right now, Pyongyang is hedging its bets on whether the US is willing to sacrifice its ally to this conflict.
Is North Korea confident enough in its nuclear capabilities to act as a deterrent to a US-led regime change effort? The nuclear tests are meant to demonstrate that confidence, but they also demonstrate fear.
The North Korea saga has been a long one, and threats have waxed and waned, always with various talking heads tossing about the idea of a major regional war. What’s different this time is that the US has clearly gone on the offensive and pushed Pyongyang into a dangerous corner. But there’s another potential geopolitical twist to this saga …
Sending NBA hero Denis Rodman to Pyongyang to entertain Kim Jong-un—a die-hard basketball fan—was said to be a goodwill gesture from Washington. Clearly, Washington’s policy decisions are nearly as colorful as Pyongyang’s.
Denis Rodman, oddly enough, is a tool (in the instrumental sense of the word). This is where it gets interesting. The US can take its preparations for an offensive against North Korea to a certain point. This point must be impeccably balanced with the aim of upping the ante in negotiations with Pyongyang. Once this is achieved, Washington’s new “pivot” towards Asia plans can enter another more delicate phase—a phase that recognizes the geopolitical importance of North Korea as an ally against China. (Related Article: How Far Will the US Go to Derail Iran-Pakistan Pipeline?)
Certainly, this must be what the most cynically astute minds in Washington are thinking. At the same time that the US and South Korea undertake carefully designed war games that simulate an offensive on North Korea, Washington sends in Denis Rodman in a push and pull effort.
China has to play along for now because it understands that a nuclear weaponized North Korea could be a formidable blackmailer. North Korea could capitalize on this new geopolitics, or it could choose to attack South Korea and start off a major war. The ball, it would seem, is in Denis Rodman’s court.