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US guessing game: How dangerous is Kim Jong Un?

The United States has pursued but for 60 years never found a resolution to the conflict with North Korea. Despite Pyongyang’s growing threats to drop nuclear bombs on the United States, there still seems no clear strategy, only the assertion that North Korea’s bark is worse than its bite. Once again, US President Barack Obama has been caught off guard. Just as with the Arab Spring of two years ago, no one saw the newest crisis coming with the pariah Stalinist state. Tensions have been escalating on a near daily basis.

The US has had a two-pronged reaction. Rhetorically, the world’s last remaining super power signals that Pyongyang’s sabre-rattling is not overly worrisome, and that there are still no North Korean soldiers marching to war. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is deploying missile destroyers and stealth bombers to the region. There is a sense of helplessness over the daily provocations from North Korea, though it remains unclear how dangerous the crisis really is.

Official Washington has played down the stand-off. Even the major US newspapers on Thursday buried the news about the most serious threat to date: that North Korea has approved a nuclear attack on the US. The White House and State Department note nearly every day that troop movements in North Korea have not been observed. There has only been “bellicose rhetoric,” unsupported through deeds, they say, and echoing from past crises on the peninsula.

“The behaviour of the regime in Pyongyang that we are seeing now … represents a familiar pattern,” presidential spokesman Jay Carney said. Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel, though, sounded a different tone: “We take those threats seriously. We have to take those threats seriously.”

Washington regularly insists there is no doubt that if it comes to it, the US would not hesitate to use weapons. “Let me be perfectly clear here today: The United States will defend and protect ourselves and our treaty ally, the Republic of Korea,” Secretary of State John Kerry said. The Defence Department has sent missile destroyers to the western Pacific and stealth bombers flying over South Korea. Washington has accelerated by two years its installation of a land-based missile defence system on the island of Guam, to free up the destroyers to move closer to North Korea.

All of this signals how serious Washington takes the threat. “It only takes being wrong once, and I don’t want to be the secretary of defence who was wrong once,” Hagel said. Washington still has 28,000 soldiers in South Korea, whose presence as de facto hostages keeps the country under the umbrella of the US nuclear deterrent. Their commander, General James Thurman, called the situation “volatile” and said his job was “to prevent war,” even as he feared a miscalculation that could result in hostilities.

Miscalculation is the key word in any discussion of the Korean crisis in Washington. The crux of the matter is that there is no direct contact with Pyongyang and its young, new ruler, Kim Jong Un, who remains an enigma. What happens if he overplays his hand? Asia expert Mike Chinoy takes Obama to task for not making an honest effort to seek contact – at least under the table. “The truth has to be faced: US policy toward North Korea is not working,” Chinoy wrote in the Washington Post.

While conceding that North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs pose a serious threat, Chinoy called for the Obama administration to take the one route that it has “adamantly resisted: engagement at the highest levels.” Mid-level envoys don’t work because the top leader makes all the key decisions, Chinoy said. Other experts disagree. Kongdan Oh of the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank, says the North Korean leader is resistant to any outside influence – except from Beijing. “It would seem that Kim Jong-un can only be moved by the wrath of his people or by strong pressure from the Chinese. No one else has leverage over him,” Oh wrote.

Korea expert Scott Snyder at the Council on Foreign Relations, another Washington think tank, sees the biggest danger in the possibility that a “miscalculation” could have “deadly consequences.” Snyder said he has seen no evidence of troop movements in the north but has another worry: “guerrilla-style provocation,” in tune with Pyongyang’s penchant for “the element of surprise.” “I worry more about North Korea when they are not rattling the sabre,” Snyder said.

Peer Meinert, "US guessing game: How dangerous is Kim Jong Un?," Business recorder. 2013-04-06.