U.S. Web users are searching for information about North Korea with astounding, unprecedented frequency. Google searches for "North Korea," currently seven times the previous peak during the country's 2006 nuclear test, are dramatically outpacing those for Beyonce or even President Obama.
Last week, North Korea was the third most-popular term on Twitter, following only Easter and Good Friday. And these Web trends appear to reflect broader American views: Pew estimates that 36 percent of Americans are following the news "very closely" -- that's unusually high for an international news story -- with 56 percent saying the United States should take the threats "very seriously."
Oddly, that skyrocketing interest does not appear to have translated into a better understanding of the North Korean threat that is drawing such great interest.
The same Pew poll found that 47 percent of Americans think that North Korea is capable of launching a nuclear missile that can hit the United States, which is false. (Another 10 percent said they don't know, meaning that more Americans believe North Korea is capable of such an attack than those who do not.) Oddly, that statistic is exactly the same for people who say they are paying close attention to the story and those who are not. Reading lots of news about North Korea does not seem to be helping Americans understand one of the most important issues about that country's potential threat to the United States.
To be as clear as possible, then, North Korea does not currently have a demonstrated capability to strike the United States with a nuclear missile. First of all, it has no missiles that have a demonstrated capability to reach that far. Secondly, even if it did, the country's nuclear program is not advanced enough to "miniaturize" a warhead, to make it small enough that it can be placed on a missile.
Pew also found that 47 percent of Americans believe North Korea's leadership is willing to follow through on its threat to launch a nuclear missile at the United States. That number actually goes way up among people who say they are paying close attention to the story: 59 percent of those believe the Kim Jong Un regime is willing to attack the United States with a nuclear missile.
The question of the Kim regime's willingness is obviously more complicated and less knowable, but it's worth noting that virtually all North Korea analysts believe that the country has no intent of following through on its threats. Theories for North Korea's rhetoric vary -- some say Kim is seeking concessions from the West, others that he's working to rally his own military's support -- but you will be very hard pressed to find a North Korea analyst who shares the view of 59 percent of Americans that North Korea is willing to launch a nuclear warhead at America.
It's not clear why Americans who pay more attention to news reports about North Korea are so ill-informed about its military capability and with the expert analysis of the country's intentions. But, as The Washington Post's Chico Harlan writes today, this sense of urgent alarm "plays into North Korea’s hands, amplifying the sense of crisis on the Korean peninsula." One South Korean analyst even suggested this was part of a deliberate "headline strategy" by Pyongyang.
Andrei Lankov, a respected North Korea analyst, warned in a recent New York Times op-ed that all the attention and overstatements of North Korea's threats actually risk strengthening the country's hand when it inevitably starts pressing for concessions from the West.
"It does not make sense to credulously take their fake belligerence at face value and give them the attention they want now," he writes. "It would be better if people in Washington and New York took a lesson from the people of Seoul," where South Koreans are mostly shrugging off the recent threats.