David Ignatius
David Ignatius
Opinion Writer

Kim’s dangerous game

One unlikely benefit of the North Korea crisis is that the world may be getting fed up with the country’s pugnacious young leader, Kim Jong Un. In his belligerent talk of war, Kim appears to have crossed a line, upsetting traditional allies such as China and Russia as well as the United States and South Korea.

U.S. analysts doubt that Kim actually intends to attack. Instead, they predict he will seek some “culminating event,” such as another missile test, after which he will declare victory and step back from the brink. But because Kim has never managed one of these cycles of threat and de-escalation before, officials fear he may not find the exit ramp.

David Ignatius

Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column and contributes to the PostPartisan blog.

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Kim has deliberately created war fever over the past two months, following a North Korean nuclear test in February. He renounced his country’s armistice with South Korea and cut the hotline, advised diplomats to leave Pyongyang and then urged foreigners to leave South Korea. He threatened a nuclear strike on the United States and displayed crude maps for a rocket attack, which would have been laughable if they weren’t a sign of Kim’s recklessness.

The Obama administration has kept its cool publicly, partly because North Korea’s actions on the ground have been less warlike than Kim’s propaganda campaign. But the United States has quietly moved to counter any military threat: Missile-defense systems are in place near North Korea, and the United States will shoot down any missile launched toward an American base or other friendly target.

Kim’s biggest miscalculation may have been in assuming that Beijing and Moscow would indulge his rhetoric. That has usually been the case for North Korea. But this time “the little upstart,” as some Chinese officials are said to describe Kim, appears to have gone too far.

China’s new president, Xi Jinping, warned last weekend that no Asian country should be allowed to create “chaos for selfish gain.” Russian President Vladimir Putin told a news conference Monday: “I would make no secret about it: We are worried about the escalation on the Korean Peninsula.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country has “no differences” with the United States over the situation.

What upsets the Chinese and Russians is that Kim’s belligerent language is triggering responses from the United States and South Korea that could affect the security balance in northeast Asia.

Missile defense is one example, but the United States is also reinforcing its submarine and air forces in the region.

The Pentagon has updated “Operation Plan 5027” for the Korean Peninsula, which envisions a quick and decisive defeat of North Korea, should it be reckless enough to attack. American and South Korean commanders, based at Command Post Tango, hope to quickly neutralize North Korean artillery tubes that threaten Seoul and to destroy North Korean air defenses.

One former official argues that the United States should go further and shoot down any new North Korean missile launch, invoking as its justification U.N. resolutions condemning the missile program. The Obama administration has no such plans — unless the missiles are aimed at U.S. targets.

Tougher moves were proposed this week in Washington by M.J. Chung, the controlling shareholder of the Hyundai conglomerate and a member of the South Korean parliament. He told a Carnegie Endowment conference that the United States should redeploy the tactical nuclear weapons it removed from South Korea in 1991 and delay a planned 2015 transfer of military operational control to South Korea. He also argued that South Korea should begin development of its own nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip for ­denuclearization of the peninsula or, failing that, as a deterrent.

“Diplomacy has failed. Persuasion has failed. Carrots and sweeteners have all failed,” Chung warned. He argued that the Chinese leadership must step in and force a change in the Kim family’s ruinous control of North Korea, just as Deng Xiaoping redirected China’s own path after the failures of Mao Zedong.

U.S. officials aren’t planning to reintroduce tactical nukes, but they do appear willing to discuss South Korean proposals to delay transfer of military control.

Is it really possible that Kim and the North Korean military could lead their country toward what would amount to national suicide? Analysts often reject this as an irrational and improbable outcome. But consider this: There was a northeast Asian nation led by a ruler with quasi-divine status, who in league with his military led his country into a reckless and self-destructive war against the United States. That nation was imperial Japan.

davidignatius@washpost.com

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