DAVID IGNATIUS: Kim’s dangerous game

By David Ignatius

WASHINGTON – One unlikely benefit of the North Korea crisis is that the world may be getting fed up with the country’s pugnacious young leader, Kim Jong Un. In his belligerent talk of war, Kim appears to have crossed a line, upsetting traditional allies such as China and Russia as well as the United States and South Korea.
U.S. analysts doubt that Kim actually intends to attack. Instead, they predict he will seek some “culminating event,” such as another missile test, after which he will declare victory and step back from the brink.
The Obama administration has kept its cool publicly, partly because North Korea’s actions on the ground have been less warlike than Kim’s propaganda campaign. But the U.S. has quietly moved to counter any military threat.
Kim’s biggest miscalculation may have been in assuming that Beijing and Moscow would indulge his belligerent rhetoric.
China’s new President Xi Jinping warned last weekend that no Asian country should be allowed to create “chaos for selfish gain.” Russian President Vladimir Putin told a news conference Monday: “I would make no secret about it, we are worried about the escalation on the Korean peninsula.” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said his country has “no differences” with the U.S. over the situation.
The Pentagon has updated “Operation Plan 5027” for the Korean peninsula, which envisions a quick and decisive defeat of North Korea should it be reckless enough to attack.
One former official argues that the U.S. should go further and shoot down any new North Korean missile launch, invoking as its justification U.N. resolutions condemning the missile program.
Tougher moves were proposed this week in Washington by M.J. Chung, the controlling shareholder of the Hyundai conglomerate and a member of the South Korean parliament. He told a Carnegie Endowment conference that the U.S. should re-deploy the tactical nuclear weapons it removed from South Korea in 1991 and delay a planned 2015 transfer of military operational control to South Korea.
“Diplomacy has failed. Persuasion has failed. Carrots and sweeteners have all failed,” warned Chung. He argued that the Chinese leadership must step in and force a change in the Kim family’s ruinous control of North Korea, just as Deng Xiaoping redirected China’s own path after the failures of Mao Zedong.
U.S. officials aren’t planning to reintroduce tactical nukes, but they do appear willing to discuss South Korean proposals to delay transfer of military control.
Is it really possible that Kim and the North Korean military could lead their country toward what would amount to national suicide? Analysts often reject this as an irrational and improbable outcome. But consider this: There was a northeast Asian nation led by a ruler with quasi-divine status, who in league with his military led his country into a reckless and self-destructive war against the United States. That nation was imperial Japan.
DAVID IGNATIUS’ email address isdavidignatius@washpost.com.