Spoiler Alerts has an informal model when it comes to analyzing any North Korean actions. That informal model is as follows:

  1. North Korea will do anything and everything it can get away with doing toward South Korea;
  2. The moment there is any actual threat of military escalation or any threat to the regime, Pyongyang will act rationally and prudently for regime survival.

The latest dust-up is generating some odd dynamics, however. After South Korean border guards were maimed by North Korean mines placed in the DMZ, South Korea appears to have surprised North Korea with the whole “not backing down” thing. There has been an exchange of artillery, followed by South Korea turning on its propaganda loudspeakers for the first time in over a decade, then North Korea setting an ultimatum for South Korea to stop it, and South Korea ignoring that ultimatum.

The latest news is a combination of marathon North-South talks:

These talks, however, are going on parallel with various provocative moves by the North Korean military, including the forward deployment of more artillery and the sending of most of the DPRK’s submarines fleet out to sea.

So what the hell is going on? There are two interpretations worth noting. One possibility is that the North Koreans are actually out of their depth. The New York Times’ Choe Sng-Hun writes the following disturbing paragraph:

Since taking office in 2011, Mr. Kim has striven to prove himself a worthy “military first” successor of his father and grandfather, both of whom ruled North Korea before him, by conducting nuclear and long-range missile tests. But his inexperience in managing crises has added to worries about the current standoff. Some analysts fear that his frequent executions of top officials might make top generals more prone to attempt armed provocations to prove their loyalty and to survive his reign.

Another possibility — which doesn’t contradict the first — is that the North Koreans have less leverage over South Korea than they thought. The Post’s Anna Fifield quotes the Asan Institute’s James Kim suggesting that North Korea is gambling for resurrection:

“If you think about it from the North Korean point of view, they don’t have much leverage in terms of what they could to do pressure South Korea,” Kim said. “So it’s understandable why they’re building up their military presence and playing a cat-and-mouse game with their submarines. The only weapon they have is the element of surprise, and they’re using it right now. Maybe because they truly feel threatened or maybe because they want to get some leverage.”

Except that, as the Peterson Institute’s Stephan Haggard observes, the nature of the negotiations themselves suggests that the North Koreans are already in a bad bargaining position:

The events surrounding the onset of the North-South talks — about to enter their second round as this goes to press — suggest strongly that it was North Korea that stood down.
After setting a 48-hour ultimatum for the South to stop its propaganda broadcasts on Thursday, it was Pyongyang that reached out several hours before the deadline to propose talks (Yonhap). This initiative occurred in the wake of a statement by the South that it had no intention of stopping the broadcasts….
The forcefulness of the South Korean response also appears to have come as a surprise. We still do not know if the South Korean counterstrike sought to do damage and failed or was — like the North Korean shelling — largely a signal. But the counterstrike showed that the South’s effort to toughen up the deterrent in the wake of the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong-do shellings of 2010 had some teeth….
One final speculation has to do with the internal politics of this episode in the North. Although the regime has an array of instruments for controlling the domestic political narrative, the loudspeakers, balloons, leaflets and other Southern efforts to penetrate the regime’s information wall have clearly hit a nerve. But more interesting is how this incident is viewed among the North Korean political and military elite. Kim Jong Un is always only a step away from an “emperor with no clothes” moment. It may be the domestic as opposed to international miscalculations of this episode that prove the most significant going forward.

So on the one hand, you have a scenario where DPRK generals are so scared of Kim that they’ll act rashly to avoid execution. On the other hand, you have another scenario where if Kim backs down, the generals will execute him.

Given that South Korea is increasingly disinclined to back down, it seems like this is one of those moments when North Korea’s leadership really could splinter and fall apart. And while that would be great for North Koreans, it scares the crap out of me.

What scares me isn’t the costs of reunification — those are daunting but doable and, more importantly, an issue for the Koreans to hash out. No, the concern I have right now is how China would react. In case you haven’t noticed, it hasn’t been a great month for Xi Jinping. The last thing Xi needs right now is for a fellow communist regime — yes, even one as crazy as North Korea — cracking up. Authoritarian regimes tend to get very tetchy when neighboring authoritarian regimes start to buckle. North Korea is particularly vexing for China. Despite the nominal alliance, Beijing’s influence over Pyongyang has waned in recent years.

China has already moved PLA forces to the North Korea border. If the DPRK should implode, my concern is just how the Chinese would react to it. It is to Beijing’s credit that it has modulated its behavior very carefully over the past year or so. But if its economy is about to hit a wall, a Korean crisis would be easy to manipulate into a nationalist rally-round-the-flag opportunity.

So to be clear, what scares me about North Korea isn’t its reckless actions. It’s the growing possibility of its crackup — and the subsequent Chinese response.

[UPDATE, 2:41 PM: The Post’s Anna Fifield now reports a deal after marathon DPRK-ROK talks:

South Korea said Tuesday that it had resolved a dispute with North Korea that had heightened tensions on the peninsula, with the north agreeing to apologize for its provocations and the south pledging to cut off broadcasts that had infuriated the Communist leaders, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

So the big question now is whether North Korean apologies for its “provocations” doesn’t cause either Kim or the DPRK generals to revolt against the other. But the very fact that an agreement has been reached does make me feel much more calm.]