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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2620

How to Pinch a Superpower: Kim Jong-un’s martial experiments

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

Kim Jong-un, the baby-faced supreme leader of North Korea, has been getting more than the fair share of global attention recently – and for all the wrong reasons. In the ascending order of pugnaciousness, he has been making threats against its immediate neighbor to the south, Japan, the historical enemy and then the world’s only superpower, the US.

In the latest outbursts, North Korea declared that the relations with South Korea are at the ‘state of war’. Before that, the dangerously-isolated country threatened to launch missile strikes at the targets in the mainland, US.

On Friday, North Korea released a photograph of comrade Kim, surrounded by his generals, in a war room with a map of the United States in the background. The picture let the cat out of the bag: North Korean military, inadvertently, let the world – and the US for that matter – know what the intended targets were, as they were clearly marked in the map hung on the wall behind the young leader.

In what North Korea calls, US Mainland Strike Plan, three out of four targets are of strategic significance – Washington DC, California and Hawaii. They are the capital of the country, the most populous – and prosperous – state and the home for a very important military garrison in the Pacific respectively.

The choice of fourth target, however, seems to be stemming from a strategic error rather than a miscalculation on the part of North Korean military planners. It is Austin in Texas, the city where George Bush Jr. lives in relative obscurity in his ranch, just 100 miles away from, in Crawford.

Those who look at unprovoked military developments from a comical point of view, have come up with a hypothesis behind the particular choice: North Koreans are going to hold Bush Jr. responsible for a certain reference that he made in his first term of office – for branding the nation as a part of what the former president famously called, the Axis of Evil.

Despite the looming threat, the American media reports that the Texans are taking the menace on the chin. Having seen Mr Kim sitting in front of an Apple computer, they hope that they will be spared from a lethal onslaught, thanks to the brand loyalty that the young leader may be harbouring, like any other Apple fan.

On the surface, the civilian leaders of the West including those of the United States, do not seem to be bothered about what Mr Kim can do. The military and spy agencies, however, maintain a diametrically opposing view about the threat. The director of the CIA, for instance, went public a few weeks ago by saying that the threats are serious. On Friday, Chuck Hagel, the Defence Secretary, reiterated that position without much elaboration. Given the secretive nature of the regime, the US and its allies are worried more over what they do not know about North Korea than what they are aware of.

In this context, the 36-hour non-stop-flight of two B-2 Spirit bombers – also known as stealth bombers - on Friday, appears to be more of a measured counteraction than a deliberate provocation, as the United States cannot afford to be seen as a weak military power with infinitely-elastic patience. Each B-2-Spirit is capable of carrying 80 500-kg guided bombs and 16 1100-kg nuclear bombs – more than enough fire power to obliterate the geographically-insignificant enemy from the surface of the earth.

It is difficult to imagine how Mr Kim is going to back down from what his enemies call posturing. The ordinary people in the West take these threats with a pinch of salt, as they are used to the bellicose language of Mr Kim’s predecessors who happened to be his own ancestors. if Mr Kim becomes tired of being laughed at, he may be compelled to choose a softer target in the vicinity – South Korea or Japan – while knowing very well that the US may force the latter to exercise restraint in the event of a relatively-small attack, even if it is deadly.

That is what happened when an Island of South Korea was subjected to a barrage of artillery in 2010 which resulted in 9 casualties and a South Korean vessel was torpedoed with the loss of 46 sailors in the same year. North Korea’s proximity to both China and Russia – and the long-standing political allegiance – potentially hinders what the US wants to do with North Korea, in the event of a major conflict breaking out, when the combination of rhetoric and sabre-rattling reaches a peak.

Russia, meanwhile, warned both the US and North Korea on Friday that the conflict could easily get out of control, unless both sides step back from their current dangerous position. It went on to say that the country could not ignore what was going on along its eastern border. China, meanwhile, want both countries to exercise maximum restraint and return to negotiating table to resolve outstanding issues.

During the last two weeks, the presence of Mr Kim with a pair of binoculars in hand along with a band of generals was a familiar sight. The generals always had two things in common: they were wearing disproportionately large military caps and carrying note books in their hands. They were seeing jotting down Mr Kim’s tactical thoughts as soon as he made them known to the military strongmen. In this context, it is equally puzzling how these generals would react, if Mr Kim failed to live up to his promises – humiliating the world’s only superpower.

Since the young Korean leader loves his life, an attack – thermo-nuclear or otherwise – on the mainland US is less likely after the flights of B-2-Spirit bombers. In short, the possibility of Mr Kim’s haircut being caught on is much stronger than taking on the US in an amateuristic manner.

Taking the focus off the US, however, is not good news for North Korea’s relatively-feeble neighbours. History is on North Korean’s side when it comes to getting away with outrageously provocative actions.

The predicament of both South Korea and Japan shows that having the strongest ally in the world on one’s side is not always a good idea, as the latter always tend to take into account its own interest first at the expense of the national humiliation of its submissive dependents.

The alliance of this kind brings in more of an emotional comfort than any physical advantage. That scenario gets even more complicated, when the power in question dictates the victims about the exact shape and form of their natural reaction, in the event of an unprovoked military attack.

The other ominous development in this case is the ability of the conflict to widen the existing chasm between the Russian-US partnerships. The US may use the incident to defend its determination to install the missile defence system in the countries of the former Soviet bloc in order to deter what it calls, the rogue states.

Russia, which vehemently opposes such a move, will see more reasons to maintain its rigid stance in the light of latest developments in the Korean peninsula.

- Asian Tribune -

How to Pinch a Superpower: Kim Jong-un’s martial experiments
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