North Korea's angry rhetoric better viewed with understanding, than comedy

Here and Now

A South Korean sentry watches over the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea in this photo from 2005. (Photo by Johannes Barre via Wikimedia Commons.)

There was a new round of violent rhetoric from North Korea on Thursday, with the government claiming it has powerful striking means and is on standby for a missile launch.

It’s the latest threat from North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un. And a new intelligence estimate from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency also brings alarming news. U.S. officials now believe North Korea has the ability to mate a nuclear warhead to a ballistic missile — something that had previously been though as too difficult for them.

The threats are raising tensions on the Korean peninsula and South Korea is increasing surveillance and security. A spokesman for South Korea’s defense ministry said the country can defend itself against a North Korean missile strike using its U.S.-produced Patriot Missile System.

John Swenson Wright, a fellow at the Chatham House think-tank, says in order to understand North Korea's actions, we need to try harder to understand its leader. 

"This is a state which emphasizes its theatrical presentations. Whether its soldiers goose-stepping in the center of Pyongyang or the very strident rhetoric we hear from the propaganda machine, it looks comical. But this is a very agile, diplomatic chess play," he said. "We should take it very seriously."

John Sudworth, a BBC reporter in Seoul, said the North finds itself cornered, with South Korea and Japan nearby, both backed by American nuclear weapons.

"The young Kim has the same, singular purpose as his father and grandfather before him — regime survival," he explained. "The nuclear weapons program, the threats and tension, are all seen as ways to strengthen the country's hand."

Blaine Harden, a journalist who writes about North Korea, said the threats and rhetoric are as much for internal consumption as external protection.

"To beef up his support inside Pyongyang, among the elite, and with the population," he said.

Sudworth said Kim is trying to show that he's also a master of political theater — just like his father and grandfather before him

"Well-demonstrated by the invitation to the U.S. basketball star, Dennis Rodman, to visit Pyongyang" Sudworth said. "The result, a lasting friendship it seems."

But all that said, Sudworth added, Kim Jong Un, like his father before him, is unlikely to start a war he's virtually assured of losing.