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Pivotal North Korea question: What is Kim thinking?

In this Sunday, April 15, 2012 file photo, a North Korean vehicle carrying a missile passes by during a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
In this Sunday, April 15, 2012 file photo, a North Korean vehicle carrying a missile passes by during a mass military parade in Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Square to celebrate the centenary of the birth of the late North Korean founder Kim Il Sung.
Associated Press

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.

"The worry is that the new North Korean leader might not hold to the same logic, given his youth and inexperience," they wrote.

Recent speculation in Seoul and Washington that Pyongyang may be poised to test a mid-range missile that's capable of reaching as far as Guam prompted this response, in a New York Times op-ed last week, by Jeremi Suri, a University of Texas, Austin, history and public affairs professor: "The Korean crisis has now become a strategic threat to America's core national interests. The best option is to destroy the North Korean missile on the ground before it is launched."

Pyongyang is likely to test new South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Cha and Kang write; that could be dangerous, as South Korea "has lost patience and will respond kinetically to any provocation."

A tough South Korean retaliation to a future North Korean attack, possibly in Yellow Sea waters both countries claim as their own, would force Pyongyang to make a crucial decision.

"North Korea's bluster suggests that it would meet South Korean escalation with even more escalation," Bruce Bennett, a RAND defense analyst, said. "The result could be a spiral of escalation that leads to an unintended major war."

Some worry about the ultimate nightmare: nuclear war.

North Korea is thought to have a handful of crude nuclear bombs. Although there is debate about its nuclear capabilities, many analysts say Pyongyang can't back up its threats to strike the U.S. mainland with nuclear-tipped missiles. Each atomic test, however, pushes its scientists a step closer to that goal.

In a war, a routed Pyongyang leadership would be forced to either flee or "try to force a cease-fire by playing its only trump card: nuclear escalation," Keir Lieber and Daryl Press, professors at Georgetown University and Dartmouth College, respectively, wrote in Foreign Affairs earlier this month.

They said it's impossible to know exactly how Kim might use his nuclear arsenal, but added, "The risk of nuclear war with North Korea is far from remote."

Others suggest that North Korea's rhetoric is intended not just to draw concessions from adversaries but to lock down power for Kim Jong Un.

Kim, who is believed to be about 30, was promoted after Kim Jong Il's death in late 2011 with lightning speed to top party, state and military positions that his father took years to obtain.

This means his work to consolidate power will probably continue for another year or two, Ken Gause, a North Korea specialist at U.S.-based research organization CNA, said in an interview in Seoul.

Gause said Kim also is likely too young to be "calling all the shots" on his own.

North Korea wants recognition as a nuclear power and direct talks with the United States meant to forge a peace agreement formally ending the Korean War, Gause said. The war ended in a cease-fire that leaves the peninsula still technically in a state of war. Pyongyang, mindful of the 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in the South, presumably hopes a treaty would result in both aid and security guarantees for its leaders.

"One of the reasons that they're ramping up the tensions so high is to walk the U.S. to the edge of the abyss and show Washington what it looks like," Gause said. Kim Jong Un may be gambling that the view will be frightening enough to force diplomatic talks on his terms.

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