Miscalculation by the inexperienced dictator of North Korea is a real danger, as he flails around in a sea of propoganda, desperate to prove to his starving nation that he's the Man. Actually he's an idiot.
If the spectre of the well-fed baby dictator of North Korea spewing colourful rhetoric towards the big bad West was not so serious, it would indeed be very funny.
Kim Jong Un has not surprisingly been the fodder of cartoons over the last few weeks - short and squat, staring skyward towards an over-elongated ‘Uncle Sam’ and waving his outstretched pudgy finger in defiance. “Take that” he is warning, “before I obliterate you all”.
Alice in Wonderland has nothing on this level of absurdity.
Even Denis Rodman’s recent basketball diplomacy went only so far. The basketball court proved no match for that of the jester in a world of cult personality.
In the last few days the combative bombast from Kim has ratcheted up a few more notches and on top of declaring his kingdom to be on a war footing, Kim has vowed to restart the country’s nuclear reactor.
Estimates of how long it will take to start producing plutonium for bombs hover around the 6 month mark, given Pyongyang has to rebuild the cooling tower it destroyed in 2007 in return for economic aid. Those were the days of carrot and stick diplomacy.
Kim has now reached a point very close to nowhere-to-go on the bellicose scale, and he is appearing increasingly unhinged, which of course is a big worry when it comes to the whole concept of nuclear mutually assured destruction.
Even the vaguely sane know not to play with the red button. The US, the ROK and others in the region are taking this all very seriously, even though they doubt he’s that stupid.
In the meantime Kim has whipped his million-strong army and his screaming, weeping, fainting and clapping (sometimes simultaneously) subjects into a nationalist frenzy, but seems still in search of some measure that proves what a tough guy he really is.
Striking at the US mainland would be suicide. Even if he could, as a plan emblazoned on a photo-op prop it is likely to be consigned to the dustbin of fantasy, alongside George W Bush’s ‘Mission Accomplished‘ banner.
As inexperienced as Kim is, surely he knows he can’t take on, let alone wipe out the US, South Korea, Japan, or carry on as he is doing and not isolate himself completely from his only ‘friend’, China - already showing signs of losing patience.
At this stage it is fair to calculate that what is important is not so much the message Kim is transmitting to the wider world, but the one he as the ‘Great Successor’ is aiming at his domestic audience.
If that means manufacturing a threat, so be it. A benefit of operating a hermetically sealed kingdom is that very few locals know exactly what is going on in the big wide world. Even if they did, they wouldn’t say so, would they?
Then there is the aspect of provocation on the part of the US with B-2 stealth bomber and B-52 bomber fly-overs. While part of the high profile, annual military US-ROK exercises, they have played perfectly into Kim’s propaganda battle.
Perceived aggression from the enemy West helps him save face on the home front, as it did his father and grandfather. That’s the grandfather who seriously overplayed his hand in the 1950 aggression with the South.
The danger of this current situation is the unpredictability of inexperience.
Also, Kim is, for all intents and purposes, not understood well by the ROK and the West. Little seems to be known (or at least disseminated) about those who are advising him, and there are persistent rumours of infighting within the political elite of Pyongyang.
That unpredictability has to be processed in conjunction with past confrontations the DPRK has initiated with no retaliation, including the sinking of the South Korean Cheonan in 2010 and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, together with recent sophisticated cyber attacks attributed to Pyongyang which have raised concerns about exactly what capacity Kim possesses in this arena.
South Korea’s new President, also needs to prove her resolve, as many South Koreans believed the lack of retaliation for the Cheonan and the Yeonpyeong incidents showed the South to be weak.
Park Geun-hye has pledged a military rather than a political response should Kim cross into her territory at all. She does so with the knowledge the US will have her back, both of course hoping there will be some way to defuse Kim.
Experience tells us that brats who throw tantrums often over-reach, and suddenly, accidentally, hell is unleashed.
This could involve a short, sharp test of the ROK’s new leadership with short and medium range missiles of which Pyongyang has large stockpiles.
Could the closure of the Kaesong industrial zone, stranding South Korean citizens inside the DPRK be the canary in the mine? The closure is being treated as an alarming new escalation because it has remained open during all previous contemporary troubles. Could it provoke Park?
Kim also has troops - oodles of them, seemingly on constant parade showing off weapons of doubtful quality.
To date the ROK and the US do not believe there is any significant troop movement in the north of the peninsula, and, you’d have to be an idiot to broadcast a military offensive weeks before.
Kim’s carryon means the sanctions against Pyongyang are hurting and, rubbing salt into his wounds is the fact he has been given no indication that the 'bad behaviour followed by rewards for good behaviour' cycle is back in operation.
So the danger is miscalculation.
Either side could miscalculate.
Chances are Kim would start the ball rolling, and then it will be up to some pretty controlled forces to respond in a measured way in order to avoid an inadvertent escalation with a corresponding death toll.
As per usual the military industrial complex will be the big winner as even threats are effective for those in the war business. If the Kims and the Ahmadinejads of this world did not exist, the military industrial complex would have to invent them - if it hasn’t already.
North Korean people trapped in their rogue state will of course pay the biggest price. They starve for the sake of a military-first doctrine and weaponry that is no match for those their petulant brat of a dictator threatens.
Tragically however, history is littered with the debris left by rogue leaders acting on their own delusions of grandeur.