SEOUL, South Korea — Don't worry, one popular argument goes, we've seen this before. Just ignore Pyongyang's unlikely threats of nuclear holocaust as you would, say, a child throwing a tantrum.
Others, equally well credentialed, say the prospect of another Korean War has never been higher, with a massive, proud North Korean army incensed by propaganda specialists pumping up an already supercharged atmosphere with increasingly violent threats.
Who's right? That depends on how you read the country's young leader, Kim Jong Un. In his 16 months on the job, Kim's government has raised fears with unusually aggressive war rhetoric against Seoul and Washington, and it's not clear whether he will pull back, a feat perfected by his late father, considered a master at brinkmanship.
The mystery surrounding Kim Jong Un's intentions has some outsiders predicting nightmare scenarios.
"What makes this different from past 'normal crises' is our lack of insight into ... Kim's mind," David Shlapak, a U.S.-Asia security analyst at RAND Corp., said last week in a transcript of comments released by the think tank.
The threats have continued, even amid U.S. and South Korean offers of dialogue. On Tuesday, the North's military Supreme Command warned that unspecified retaliatory actions would happen at any time.
Figure out Kim, analysts say, and you may determine what's happening in North Korea.
If he follows the playbook of his father, Kim Jong Il, he will tighten the screws just enough, in an attempt to push his adversaries to negotiations meant to win aid. Grandfather Kim Il Sung, on the other hand, gambled everything early in his leadership on a surprise attack on South Korea that resulted in three years of carnage that had U.S. officials dropping hints about the use of nuclear weapons to force a resolution.
Some see the North's sustained outburst as part of a long-established pattern meant to solidify loyalty at home, while also pushing Seoul and Washington to adopt more Pyongyang-friendly policies. Since the Korean War ended in 1953, they say, the rivals have experienced many cycles of hostility, often punctuated by bloodshed, without things spiraling out of control.
"There are no good reasons to think that Kim Jong Un, North Korea's young dictator, would want to commit suicide," Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul, wrote last week in a New York Times op-ed column. "Put bluntly, North Korea's government hopes to squeeze more aid from the outside world."
The spike in North Korean threats, including a promised nuclear attack on America, has followed U.N. sanctions over its third nuclear test in February and ongoing U.S.-South Korean military drills it considers invasion preparation. But so far it has been mostly talk, aside from Pyongyang's suspension of operations at a factory complex that relied on managers and raw material from South Korea. Military officials in Washington and Seoul have said they do not believe North Korea is preparing for a full-scale attack.
"This time, the tune is being played louder, but that is the only real change," Lankov wrote.
U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told U.S. lawmakers last week that tensions were higher in 1968, when North Korea captured the U.S. intelligence ship Pueblo and held its crewmen for nearly a year, and in 1976, when ax-wielding North Koreans killed two Americans pruning a poplar tree in the Demilitarized Zone between north and south.
Not everyone is convinced that Kim will maintain the delicate peace that has lasted on the Korean Peninsula for 60 years. That tenuous condition prevailed because "neither side believed that the benefits of starting a major war outweighed the costs," Korea analysts David Kang and Victor Cha wrote late last month in Foreign Policy.
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