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Why North Korea loves to threaten World War III (but probably won’t follow through)

(Ed Jones -- AFP/Getty Images)

Here is a partial list of some of North Korea's terrifying threats and provocations since the United Nations Security Council imposed new sanctions late last week: nullify the 60-year armistice that had ended the Korean War, sever the emergency communication line with South Korea, order frontline troops to prepare to "cut the windpipes" of their enemies, threaten to "wipe out" a South Korean island and pledge "all-out war."

North Korea is indeed a dangerous rogue state that has, in the recent past, staged small-scale but deadly attacks on South Korea without provocation. In March 2010, a South Korean navy ship was attacked by a ship of unknown origin, killing 46 on board; though North Korea denied responsibility, an investigation concluded it was likely responsible. A few months later, North Korea fired over 100 artillery shells at Yeonpyeong Island, killing two civilians and wounding 19.

But is North Korea really an irrational nation on the brink of launching "all-out war," a mad dog of East Asia? Is Pyongyang ready to sacrifice it all? Probably not. The North Korean regime, for all its cruelty, has also shown itself to be shrewd, calculating, and single-mindedly obsessed with its own self-preservation. The regime's past behavior suggests pretty strongly that these threats are empty. But they still matter.

For years, North Korea has threatened the worst and, despite all of its apparent readiness, never gone through with it. So why does it keep going through these macabre performances? We can't read Kim Jong Eun's mind, but the most plausible explanation has to do with internal North Korean politics, with trying to set the tone for regional politics, and with forcing other countries (including the United States) to bear the costs of preventing its outbursts from sparking an unwanted war.

Starting World War III or a second Korean War would not serve any of Pyongyang's interests. Whether or not it deploys its small but legitimately scary nuclear arsenal, North Korea could indeed cause substantial mayhem in the South, whose capital is mere miles from the border. But the North Korean military is antiquated and inferior; it wouldn't last long against a U.S.-led counterattack. No matter how badly such a war would go for South Korea or the United States, it would almost certainly end with the regime's total destruction.

Still, provocations and threats do serve Pyongyang's interests, even if no one takes those threats very seriously. It helps to rally North Koreans, particularly the all-important military, behind the leader who has done so much to impoverish them. It also helps Pyongyang to control the regional politics that should otherwise be so hostile to its interests. Howard French, a former New York Times bureau chief for Northeast Asia whom I had the pleasure of editing at The Atlantic, explained on Kim Jong Il's death that Kim had made up for North Korea's weakness with canny belligerence:

The shtick of apparent madness flowed from his country's fundamental weakness as he, like a master poker player, resolved to bluff and bluff big. Kim adopted a game of brinkmanship with the South, threatening repeatedly to turn Seoul into a "sea of flames." And while this may have sharply raised the threat of war, for the North, it steadily won concessions: fuel oil deliveries, food aid, nuclear reactor construction, hard cash-earning tourist enclaves and investment zones.

At the risk of insulting Kim Jong Eun, it helps to think of North Korea's provocations as somewhat akin to a child throwing a temper tantrum. He might do lots of shouting, make some over-the-top declarations ("I hate my sister," "I'm never going back to school again") and even throw a punch or two. Still, you give the child the attention he craves and maybe even a toy, not because you think the threats are real or because he deserves it, but because you want the tantrum to stop.

The big problem here is not that North Korea will intentionally start World War III or a second Korean War, because it probably won't. So you can rest easy about that. The big problem is that North Korea's threats and provocations, however empty, significantly raise the risk of an unwanted war. The United States, South Korea and yes Pyongyang's all-important ally, China, all have much more to lose in a regional war than does North Korea.

It falls to those countries, then, to keep the Korean peninsula from spiraling out of control. Even if they don't ultimately offer Pyongyang concessions to calm it down, as they have in the past, they've still got an interest in preventing future outbursts. Like parents straining to manage a child's tantrum, it's a power dynamic that oddly favors the weak and misbehaving.

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