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North Korea threats predictable but Kim Jong Un is not, analysts say


Is Kim Jong Un crazy -- or crazy like a fox?

Analysts said Friday there's a familiar method to the madness coming out of North Korea, where the rookie supreme leader has put rockets on standby, threatened to "settle accounts" with the U.S., and posed near a chart that appeared to map missile strikes on American cities. On Saturday, North Korea said it had entered a "state of war" against South Korea, according to a statement reported by the north's official news agency, KCNA. 

Kim Jong Un's father and grandfather were also serial saber-rattlers when they headed the secretive regime, and experts said there are clear strategic reasons why the world's youngest head of state is ramping up the rhetoric now, after little more than a year in power.

But if the bluster is predictable, the results may not be.

North Korea has enhanced its nuclear capabilities and Kim Jong Un has something to prove to his people and the world. Some outside observers are warning that a misstep, or overstep, by Pyongyang could bring north Asia to the brink of war.

"I think there is always room for miscalculation and things spiraling out of control," said Sung-Youn Lee, professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. "But he is following the playbook set by his father and grandfather."

North Korea is "very adept at engaging at psychological warfare," Lee said. It cranks up the tensions, putting pressure on Seoul and Washington, and is rewarded with aid and concessions when it tones things down, Lee said.

"No leader wants a foreign policy crisis created by North Korea on their hands ... the impulse is to de-escalate," Lee added. "North Korea has been very good at playing this game -- nuclear diplomacy, even extortion -- for the past 20 years."

This time around, foreign-policy watchers said, a confluence of circumstances have set the stage for Kim Jong Un's provocations:

-- Pyongyang is stewing over the U.N. Security Council, with the support of China, tightening sanctions after satellite and nuclear testing that suggested they could one day attack the U.S.

-- There are new administrations in South Korea, China and Tokyo, and President Barack Obama is making second-term changes to his defense and national-security leadership, so the timing is right to test the waters.

-- Kim Jong Un may need to consolidate his political power at home. A strong response by the U.S. or South Korea, such as this week's B-2 bomber flyover, helps rally domestic support and distract from economic problems.

-- North Korea's last nuclear test showed progress. "You feel you can afford to threaten because you feel you have a deterrent," said Scott Snyder, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

Joel Wit, visiting fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, said that from the North Korean perspective, Kim Jong Un and his lieutenants "aren't crazy" and are falling back on a tried-and-true strategy.

"They're a very small country dealing with much more powerful countries, and they can't show any weakness. For them, the best defense is a good offense," he said.

Yet Snyder said Kim Jong Un's standing as a new, untested ruler is "the real wild-card factor that makes this different."

The 30-year-old appears to be modeling himself on his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who is more revered inside the country than the recently departed Kim Jong Il, he said.

"But you have to remember that even though Kim Il Sung came into power in his 30s, the first thing he did was start a war with South Korea," Snyder said.

Stephen Noerper, senior vice president of the Korea Society, noted that 2013 has special significance: it's the 60th anniversary of the armistice that ended that war.

Kim Jong Un's decision to cut the hotline used to arrange cross-border crossing by workers with Seoul was "worrying," he said.

"The wordage is hot and what you don't want is the evolution of a hot conflict," he said. "There should be heightened vigilance even if the expectation is that it will blow over."

A hit on U.S. targets seems highly unlikely and would be "suicidal," Lee said. But South Korea and Japan are within striking distance, and many experts say it's not impossible that Kim Jong Un could act rashly.

"While these weapons can't reach the U.S., it's an extremely tense situation, and wars don't always start logically," Wit said.

Experts were waiting to see the actual impact of North Korea's "state of war" declaration early Saturday.

"Talk is one thing, actions are another," Snyder said.