In assessing North Korea's capability to carry out its threatened full-scale and potentially nuclear "strike plan" against the United States, we've looked at its missile range, its cyber espionage program, its nuclear fuel development, its ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead, its conventional military strength, even the apparent distance between its rhetoric and actions.
But, sometimes, complicated situations can be best expressed through a simpler medium. In this case, everything we've learned about the "U.S. Mainland Strike Plan" that North Korea showed off last week could be pretty neatly summarized by this gif image:
The gif is a modification of a North Korean propaganda photo released on March 25, showing Kim Jong Un and several officers examining new military technology that did not actually look very new. The original is posted at the top of this page. Many observers, myself included, wondered what was going on in on the computer screen inside that metal box. Whoever made this gif has jokingly suggested it was the North's battle plan against the U.S., which bears an uncanny resemblance the 1980 arcade game "Missile Command."
It's useful not just because it's funny and because it helps appropriately frame the degree of North Korea's military capability, but also because it suggests, deliberately or not, the degree to which the threats and "war plans" are all a game for Kim. He's not really trying to wage a final, decisive battle against the American imperialists: he's trying to rack up points with his generals and his citizens, maybe get a high score that he can redeem for Western food aid at the next international negotiations.
The original photo was part of a series showing leader Kim Jong Un's visit with Unit 1501 of the Korean People’s Army, which is reportedly building new military technology. Other photos from the trip showed that Unit 1501 was developing what appeared to be a mini-submarine and, I swear I am not making this up, children's playground equipment. Much more on the original photo is here.
The above gif was posted by Foreign Policy's John Hudson, who argues that Kim Jong Un's military strategy might not be very effective, but his media strategy has been a smashing success. Kim's recent provocations are shaping global news coverage and even, based on Google trends data, the actual interest of real people.
Still, as a counterweight to this gif, read Jeffrey Lewis's piece in Foreign Policy gauging the seriousness of North Korea's threat to world. For all North Korea's military shortcomings and its supremely mockable propaganda, he writes, "it is important to take these threats seriously, if only to discern the signal in the cacophony of threats and bluster." But, as Lewis writes, the real danger is in accidental escalation, particularly if another North Korean provocation pushes the South too far. That's a real and serious concern. It's a potentially deadly game but, for the Kim regime, the threat of war is likely still just that.