It's never nice when underage dictators point their nuclear arsenal at you willy-nilly, but try not to panic too much. I don't think North Korea is going to blow up America just yet, or that deep down Kim Jong Un even wants to.
As the entire world knows by now, North Korea is thinking about nuking America. It's been nice knowing you guys, but we are all going down in a righteous blaze. Late Wednesday evening Kim Jong Un's National Defense Commission released a to-the-point statement saying, "We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are targeted at the United States." Nuclear Boom Town is in the cards and North Korea is cool with it. The provocations came in response to a UN resolution issued a day earlier, condemning their December rocket launch. South Korean intelligence reported the country is "technically ready" for a third missile outing, and that they have the capability to unleash a rocket that could reach as far as Google's exhaustingly wacky offices in San Francisco, which would ruin the cloud computing dream for everyone. Russia and China, who normally refrain from bickering over North Korea, have both stepped in, backing the resolution and urging dialogue.
But try not to panic too much. It's never nice when underage dictators point their nuclear arsenal at you willy-nilly, but I don't think North Korea is going to blow up America just yet, or that deep down Kim Jong Un even wants to. This isn't simply attention-seeking or a "bargaining chip," as many commentators would have you believe. In fact, I'd wager this whole tantrum is an effort to maintain stability and legitimacy on home turf at a time when the whole world is wagging a finger at them.
It's still a bit to too early into Kim's career as the world's youngest leader to have his outlook precisely pegged. He could be a gung-ho, FTW asshole with the same limited emotional intelligence and leadership skills of his terrible father, Kim Jong Il, or, behind the pudgy, moon-like smirk there just MIGHT be a glowing orb of progressive thinking and sensitivity to the people he rules over, akin to his not-too-bad-by-comparison grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
His propaganda department understands this too, and are at pains to keep Kim Jong Un's leadership as credible as possible. In recent months, the regime has bent moderately to the whims of the outside world in several small but significant ways, not just by giving Eric Schmidt a platform, but by doing things like allowing more North Koreans the flexibility to cross in and out of China for trade. As this is pretty much an about turn from the inward-looking, military-first policy of nuke-mad Kim Jong Il, the new leader has to strike an awkward balance between seeing through his father's nuclear legacy without undermining it (which would question his own role as dynastic successor), and actually doing something meaningful on the ground to make life better for everyone. Essentially, it means all this nuclear talk is necessary for North Korea to consolidate its internal narrative during the transition between leaders, and its function is heavily symbolic (for now at least).
I asked Adam Cathcart, editor-in-chief at SinoNK, what he thought. He agreed, saying, “There is certainly a performative element to it, or empty chest thumping, since they don't yet have the capability to miniaturize nuclear warheads. At the same time, domestically, this is the redemption of a promise that has been made over and over again by the state of its ability to guarantee the sovereignty of the country and to exact revenge for the destruction of the Korean War.”
North Korea's nuclear aspirations are not just expressed by angry military men. Rocket Power echoes throughout North Korean popular culture with the same obfuscating qualities that global terrorism takes on in over-simplified Hollywood blockbusters. Weeks before this latest bellicose outburst, you could switch on the TV in North Korea and watch some super hot Korean pop stars perform a song that sounds a bit like "The Final Countdown" and features a video of them launching a nuclear missile that blows up the entire world. It's not a statement of intent, it's low-brow entertainment designed to commodify reality in a way that inspires passivity and acquiescence. I don't see much difference in the ideological function of this and Katy Perry launching fireworks out of her breasts—they're just two vague myths of empowerment that offer little more than passive visual titillation, framed differently for two very different world views.
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