Crazed or calculating? That's what the world needs to know about North Korea's young Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un.
The answer has been impossible to fathom so far. But the cloistered nation has nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and Kim's reckless saber-rattling has been incessant since he succeeded his father Kim Jong Il on Dec. 28, 2011. So hopefully the answer is calculating.
Kim said Tuesday he will use an existing nuclear reactor to enrich uranium for bombs and also restart another reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium that was shut down in 2007. He has threatened to unleash nuclear strikes on the United States and South Korea, and in February he exploded a nuclear bomb in an underground test. Meanwhile, Kim has declared the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War null and void, tested long-range missiles that could one day carry nuclear warheads and severed a key military hotline to South Korea.
That's troubling stuff, particularly from a young, untested leader who may feel the need to prove to his nation's military leaders that he's tough enough for the job. But his recent actions are similar to those his father, Kim Jong Il, habitually used in his 17-year reign when he wanted to strengthen his bargaining position with the West.
It was a dangerous game, but a predictable one. With the son, it’s still dangerous but, because he has no track record, a lot less predictable. And right now, it isn't clear what he may want.
In response, the United States has made a show of military and political might. While conducting annual joint exercises with South Korea, the United States has flown stealth bombers over the Korean Peninsula that are capable of carrying nuclear weapons. It is also moving closer to the North Korean coast a warship capable of shooting down ballistic missiles, and a sea-based radar platform able to monitor military movements.
That's after leading a successful effort at the United Nations in January to ratchet up economic sanctions against the already heavily sanctioned nation, and persuading China, North Korea's major remaining ally, to sign on.
All that should ease the pressure on South Korea to do something unilaterally to meet the threat, while showing North Korea the United States is prepared to respond if it initiates any military action.
At the same time the White House has emphasized publicly that North Korea hasn't backed up its threatening rhetoric with military moves, such as mobilizing troops, leaving open the possibility that this is all bluster. That calm “hope for the best, but plan for the worst” approach is a good one.
A rash reaction to North Korea's rash provocations could lead to a war that nobody wants.