A North Korean soldier on patrol Wednesday in the town of Sinuiju, seen from… (Associated Press )
Contrary to the adage, what we don’t know about North Korea could hurt us.
It’s not known whether the intermediate-range Musudan missiles poised for imminent firing could reach U.S. bases on Guam or Japan, though at least the latter is thought to be likely.
Neither do the geopolitical experts who track every inscrutable move of the hermit country know if a missile launch would be meant to salute late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung on his 101st birthday Monday or to demonstrate that Pyongyang has the power to instigate a nuclear conflagration.
Security analysts have been saying throughout the recent war of words that North Korea has yet to perfect the art of miniaturizing a warhead to affix to missiles. That was until Thursday, when the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency informed Congress that it now believes North Koreans do have that know-how.
PHOTOS: The North Korean threat
Most disturbing, Korea watchers say, is how little is known about the country’s bombastic new leader, Kim Jong Un. Is he merely copying from the bluff-and-bluster playbook of his predecessors? Or is he inexperienced enough, aggressive enough or crazy enough to actually attack superior armed U.S. and South Korean forces that could annihilate his regime in retaliation?
“We shouldn’t assume he’s an insane or irrational leader or hell-bent on a suicidal mission,” said Suzanne DiMaggio, vice president for global policy programs at the Asia Society think tank. “We have seen time and time again, even prior to his leadership, a consistent ratcheting up of threats and hostile rhetoric that has resulted more or less in a lot of posturing.”
But this time the rhetoric is more shrill, the belligerence more enduring and the potential for miscalculation higher in view of Kim’s lack of experience in military and diplomatic affairs.
“This time we’ve seen in rapid succession a nuclear test, a successful launch of missiles and threats of preemptive nuclear attacks on the West,” DiMaggio said. “So clearly the threats have heightened, and that is reason for real concern.”
Some Korea analysts had been sensing a slight toning down of the belligerence in recent days, or interpreting some of Pyongyang’s actions as signaling that a missile strike wasn’t imminent.
Ferenc Dalnoki-Veress, a Canadian physicist engaged in the Monterey Institute of International Studies' North Korea nuclear weapons analysis, pointed out that North Korea has yet to notify international aviation and maritime authorities of air and sea space closures, as they have ahead of previous missile launches. Foreign carriers pay Pyongyang to cross its airspace and territorial waters -- a source of hard currency that Kim’s regime is unlikely to jeopardize, Dalnoki-Veress said.
Pyongyang also is hosting a marathon on Sunday as part of the celebrations honoring the nation’s founder, he said, an event drawing some international presence that would probably preclude any provocative military actions -- at least until Monday.
But North Korea reiterated Thursday that it was poised to turn enemy nations into “a sea of fire.” That instigated a fresh round of warnings to Kim that he is playing a dangerous game. President Obama, in a meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, vowed that his administration would “take all necessary steps” to protect Americans and their allies. South Korea’s new president, Park Geun-hye, has also put Pyongyang on notice that she has authorized decisive military retaliation if her country is attacked. Foreign ministers of the powerful Group of 8 nations meeting in London lambasted Pyongyang for “aggressive rhetoric” and warned that its behavior served to “seriously undermine” peace, security and regional stability.
The outpouring of censure reflected the growing sense among North Korea analysts that Kim, who just turned 30 and has been in power for only 16 months, may not fully appreciate the danger he is luring to his impoverished nation.
Others fear that he knows exactly what he is doing. While China, North Korea’s most important ally, has been sending public and private signals to Pyongyang to rein in the warmongering, the saber-rattling has continued unabated.
PHOTOS: Following Kim Jong Un
“Kim knows that the bottom line is that the only thing China fears more than a nuclear North Korea is a collapsed North Korea” and is likely banking on Beijing remaining its loyal benefactor, said Melissa Hanham, an East Asia security analyst at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey. China would be inundated with North Korean refugees fleeing a conflict, Hanham said, and would do anything necessary to avoid drawing U.S. forces into the region to fulfill treaty obligations to defend South Korea.