Kim Jong-Un’s game of nuclear poker

Kim Jong-Un, the ruler of North Korea, seems to have gone crazy.

The young and chubby dictator of the Hermit Kingdom is issuing increasingly over-the-top threats, including warnings that he might launch nuclear strikes against the United States. As Didi Kirsten Tatlow of International Herald Tribune writes, “It seems scary, even crazy: talk of a ‘sea of fire’ and an ‘arc of destruction,’ nuclear missiles slamming into distant shores. Kim Jong-Un is … running nuclear programs that are going, literally, ballistic.”

Officials in Washington are reassuring the American public and U.S. allies in Asia that Kim the III may initiate some limited provocations, but his ultimate goal is to survive, so he is highly unlikely to do anything as foolish as using nuclear weapons.

During his first visit to Asia since taking office, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has traveled to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. “In a trip that will set the tone for the international response to the latest threats from North Korea,” Geoff Dyer of Financial Times reports, “Mr. Kerry’s objective is to resist pressure from Pyongyang and provide continued reassurance to America’s South Korean and Japanese allies, while also cajoling China into putting more pressure on its North Korean ally.”

Despite Washington’s assurances, however, “the risk of nuclear war with North Korea is far from remote,” warns Keir Lieber of Georgetown University and Daryl Press of Dartmouth College. In their latest Foreign Affairs article titled “The Next Korean War,” Professors Lieber and Press argued that “although Pyongyang’s tired threats are probably bluster, the current crisis has substantially increased the risk of a conventional conflict – and any conventional war with North Korea is likely to go nuclear.”

Make no mistake, if a second Korean War were to erupt on the Peninsula, Kim Jong-Un’s Korean People’s Army (KPA), armed with antiquated equipment, would be no match for the U.S.-South Korean Combined Forces Command (CFC).

But that is exactly where the real danger of a conflict with North Korea lies. “Ironically,” as Lieber and Press point out, “the risk of North Korean nuclear war stems not from weakness on the part of the United States and South Korea but from their strength. If war erupted, CFC forces would quickly cross the border and head north. At that point, North Korea’s inner circle would face a grave decision: how to avoid the terrible fates of such defeated leaders as Saddam Hussein and Muammar al-Qaddafi. Kim Jong-Un’s only option would be to play his trump card: nuclear escalation.”

Kim Jong-Un’s seemingly hysterical nuclear threats, therefore, rests on a simple and straightforward logic: he does not see his nuclear weapons as merely a political instrument or a diplomatic bargaining chip – he is not trying to send up some trail balloons, but to prepare for a war with the United States. As Jennifer Lindat Dartmouth College writes, “North Korea does not test nuclear weapons to send messages, but to make sure that its ultimate deterrent will work.”

Kim Jong-Un is not irrational. Like his father and grandfather, the young Kim is playing a game of nuclear poker on the Korean peninsula. But the way Kim the Grandson is playing this time is doubly worrying.

First, the young Kim, says David Pilling of Financial Times, “has given little indication that he can be bought off. In the past Pyongyang has played its role of “extortionary state” to perfection – to behave badly until it has got something: money, food, oil or a seat at the negotiating table. This time, though, Mr. Kim appears to have rejected any such overtures before they are made. He has declared North Korea’s nuclear status non-negotiable. With a nuclear climb-down explicitly excluded, it will be very hard for the West to make any concessions.”

“The trouble in all of this is,” says Pilling, “that no one knows the Kid’s ‘tell.’ He may be a lousy novice. Alternatively, he may be some kind of poker genius.”

A second serious risk is that Kim Jong-Un may, as Kwan Ha Yim of Manhattanville College cautions, “become a captive of his own word and acts on his threats, which he might very well do if provoked. The conventional wisdom is that Mr. Kim is blustering for his own political ends. That may very well be the case. But that is all the more the reason that we should exercise greater caution, unless, for some unaccounted reason, we are dying for another war in Korea.”

Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College’s China Program.