Kim Jong Un's latest threats against the United States may be even more apocalyptic than Kim Jong Il's. But the Obama administration still believes the young North Korean leader is reading from a page in his father's playbook.
One senior administration official described the tried-and-true play as something like this: "Talk tough and scare people. Follow that with some kind of provocation. Then at some point of your choosing, step back, put your weapons down and say, 'Well, we won that round. What are you going to do for us?' It's the classic North Korea provocation-extortion cycle."
U.S. officials can't guarantee the North Koreans will play it this way now. They do fully expect some type of tactical action from the North in the form of anything from a nuclear test to a computer hacking to a shelling of South Korea. But they point to natural biorhythms in North Korea that suggest the regime cannot sustain the current tempo. With the spring planting season approaching in a few weeks, North Korean soldiers will have to return to their fields and the regime will be forced to choose between target practice on paper maps of the United States and feeding their people.
"The operating assumption is that we don't think he is going to stay too far from this pattern," the official said of the new North Korean leader. "There may be lower lows and sharper threats that come thick and faster now, but a lot is driven by the North's own internal requirements. At some point, this will end because they need help. And we expect to be finding ourselves hearing the North Korea sweet sounds asking for economic help. If we can get there without real bloodshed, this is not overly concerning."
Generally, dictators are not suicidal, and officials believe Kim Jong Un is no different. Since his main goal seems to be staying in power, officials feel he probably realizes incurring the wrath of the world's most powerful military might not be the smartest move. Officials and analysts say his father knew where the line was.
Yet, because the U.S. can't be sure exactly what the regime is up to and isn't sure Kim won't make a dangerous miscalculation, Washington has had to act protectively. The U.S. bolstered military exercises with South Korea with shows of force that included overflights by nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers, massive Cold War-era B-52s and F-22 Raptor stealth fighters. And as North Korea's threats grew more ominous, the U.S. started moving warships closer to the North Korean coast.
"The problem with this guy is he is so young and quite impulsive. He may walk up to the edge and stumble over it," says Victor Cha of the Center for Strategic International Studies. "Maybe the U.S. is saying to him, 'We will show you the edge if you don't know where it is.' "
In large part, these moves were about sending a message to the region that the U.S. will defend its ally, South Korea. But as tough as those steps are, officials call them modest. The U.S., they said, could have dispatched a nuclear-armed warship to combat the North's latest threat. Instead, in an effort to preserve a chance for diplomacy once Kim's latest temper tantrum is over, the administration has gone to great lengths to make clear its military moves are purely defensive in nature.
"We had to take steps. We have an untested leader, operating at a faster provocation pace than his father did without any indication he knows when to step back," another senior administration official said.
"But we also need to bear in mind that unless Kim Jong Un is setting a new path, the North will declare some sort of cease-fire and say they are ready for talks. And we need to position ourselves with the Chinese and the South Koreans to be ready for that."
Officials predict a natural pivot point to diplomacy as the U.S. and South Korean military exercises wind down at the end of April. Secretary of State John Kerry travels to Asia next week in advance of a visit to Washington by South Korean President Park Geun-Hye. China, having just elected a new president, is sure to send officials to Washington for talks in advance of the annual U.S.-China strategic and economic dialogue this summer.
Standing next to the South Korean foreign minister Tuesday, Kerry himself was forward-leaning on the prospects for diplomacy. Even as he pledged that the United States was ready and able to protect itself and its ally Seoul in the face of North Korea's threats, he spoke of the goal of improved relations between the Koreas and said the U.S. was prepared to return to the table with North Korea, should the regime decide to quit its antics.
"They have an option. And that option is to enter into negotiations for the denuclearization," Kerry said. "And to begin to focus on the needs of their people, which we also have made clear we are prepared to help them with if they will bring their behavior in line with the United Nations and global community requirements."
That's not to say the U.S. or South Korea is talking about some sweetheart deal for North Korea anytime soon. Nobody has been particularly optimistic about engagement, ever since Kim Jong Un took office and violated the so-called Leap Day agreement to suspend its nuclear-weapon and long-range missile testing in exchange for food aid. Administration officials said they would expect the hiatus in efforts to get North Korea back to the table for multilateral disarmament talks to continue.
"The consensus is the kind of stuff we and the South Koreans used to offer the North Koreans, like a light-water reactor, is not in the offing," one senior administration official said. "But there will be a moment when we are ready to provide humanitarian assistance."
But John Park of the U.S. Institute for Peace warns that falling back on old analyses of North Korea's behavior is dangerous. Pyongyang's recent statements that its nuclear program was not a bargaining chip, he warns, suggest that North Korea is on a new course that has it intent on becoming a nuclear power.
"North Korea doesn't seem interested in negotiations at this particular point in time, but rather in making more progress on its nuclear program," he said. "This is a very elaborate game of chicken with a lot at stake. And if you want to prevail in a game of chicken, the most effective way is to rip out the steering wheel. The North Koreans are doing anything but walking away. Now it is a question of who will flinch first."
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