Goldmark: North Korea ushers us into the rogue-nuclear state era

University students march through Kim Il Sung Square

University students march through Kim Il Sung Square in downtown Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday. Tens of thousands of North Koreans turned out for the mass rally in support of their leader Kim Jong Un's call to arms. (March 29, 2013) (Credit: AP )

North Korea says it is going to attack the United States.

A country that has nuclear weapons, even if only a handful, has no trouble getting a lot of attention when it says something like that.

Most security experts think North Korea can't hit the continental United States. The Obama administration said last week it doesn't believe North Korea has developed a nuclear warhead, at least not yet. Which leaves everyone trying to figure out what game this isolated, brutal dictatorship is in fact playing.

The United States is speeding up missile defense upgrades in the Pacific, and you can bet every possible surveillance and intelligence technology available is being trained on North Korea to try to determine what it's up to. U.S. cities may be too far away today for its fledgling missile force and crude nuclear weapons. But there are American troops stationed in South Korea, and if the North Korean government is going to attack the United States, that's where they will do it.

These provocative threats are part of a classic North Korean pattern that we've seen in the past: Its leaders rattle their sabers, make wildly belligerent threats, and then at the eleventh hour offer to calm down in exchange for some negotiating concession they've been pursuing. If this is in fact that old pattern we're seeing, then what's not clear is what they're really after with this sensationalized talk of war against the globe's strongest military power.

The other superpower scratching its head over all this is China.

China has continued to tolerate North Korea as a bizarre client state because it doesn't like the idea of South Korean and American troops having the run of the Korean peninsula all the way up to the Yalu River, the border with China. But shrewd China watchers, like former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, think North Korea's recent antics may convince China's new leadership that North Korea is a serious liability.

In a talk at the Council on Foreign Relations in Manhattan on April 4, Rudd gave an assessment of China's new leader, Xi Jinping.

"He is very comfortable in his own skin," Rudd said, pointing out that Xi had impeccable credentials that would give him a lot of maneuvering room in the rarefied upper altitudes of Chinese politics. Xi's father was a general under Mao Zedong in the Communist revolution and, unlike his predecessor, Xi himself served in uniform. So his credentials with the powerful Chinese military are strong. And he established his competence in the economic sphere, where many of China's current challenges lie, as a close assistant to Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s.

Xi gave his first public sign last week that he may not be happy with North Korea's histrionics. At the Boao Asia Forum, a sort of Chinese Davos for the elite, Xi said that "no one should be allowed to throw the region, or even the whole world, into chaos for selfish gains." His listeners assumed he was talking about North Korea. Only China has the ability to make life really miserable for the North Korean government and to jeopardize the survival of that regime.

This is a good time to remember that there are in fact crazy governments and that sometimes they do crazy things. Many of our views on the dynamics of nuclear power politics were shaped during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union behaved militarily like a lumbering, blustering but fundamentally conservative giant. Today two aspiring nuclear powers, Iran in west Asia and North Korea in East Asia, are behaving like reckless and incendiary provocateurs. Both governments are shrouded in secrecy and their intentions are nearly impossible for other countries to discern. We may have entered a period long predicted, when the global community finally has to deal with dangerous, rogue nuclear states.

Peter Goldmark, a former budget director of New York State and former publisher of the International Herald Tribune, headed the climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund.