Iraq, the great chimera of the Bush administration, had no weapons of mass destruction, posed no threat to the United States or its interests, posed no threat to its neighbors, and, after the defeat in Kuwait and years of sanctions, its army was in no shape to fight.
North Korea is different. Under its untested new leader, Kim Jong-un, believed to be 29 or 30, the always-belligerent pariah state has raised its level of threats in vehemence, frequency and, most alarmingly, specificity.
Meeting with his military leaders Friday, Kim, according to the state-run news agency, said "the time has come to settle accounts with the U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing situation."
North Korean spokesmen have threatened pre-emptive strikes against the United States, for the first time specifically mentioning Washington, and South Korea to "break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and thus clearly show them what real war is like."
The Korean peninsula has had an uneasy peace for nearly 60 years, so perhaps Pyongyang has forgotten what "real war" is like. Alarmingly, Kim recently renounced the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War and cut off all military communication with South Korea.
There is a strong possibility that these bloodcurdling threats are meant mainly for internal consumption — that Kim wants to distract his people from the reality that their miserable lives have gotten no better under his rule; that Kim, who has no military experience, is desperate to establish the image of a strong, decisive leader; or that perhaps his grip on power isn't as tight as the world thinks and this warmongering talk is a way of warding off a potential internal challenge.
If so, a coup by senior North Korean military leaders, who have at least some sense of war, might not be all bad. It's hard to imagine a new government being any worse.
The United States has no choice but to take the threats semi-seriously. Military analysts say that Kim's missiles pose no threat to the U.S. mainland or even Hawaii or Guam. Nonetheless, this is reason to strengthen missile defenses in South Korea, Japan and the Pacific.
China is the indispensable nation when it comes to influencing North Korea, and Beijing must come to realize that a conflagration on the Korean peninsula with its accompanying uncertainty could bring an abrupt end to its robust economic growth.
The danger is that Kim's threats may reach the point of diminishing returns and the callow, inexperienced North Korean may feel compelled to act — simply to prove that these are not empty threats.
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