North Korea is almost a parody of a rogue State. Consider if there had been a movie depicting a government that regularly issued blood-curdling promises to attack the world’s sole superpower, threatened to missile its own neighbours on a monthly basis and repeatedly carried out nuclear tests in defiance of its own treaty obligations — and then did not follow through on any of its threats.
The plot of such a film would have been dismissed as absurd and unrealistic. That is simply not how countries are supposed to behave. But Pyongyang does this sort of thing so often that it barely excites any country outside Northeast Asia.
Any hope that the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, would break with the bellicose and erratic behaviour of his predecessors has been put to rest in the past few months.
After carrying out his country’s third nuclear test, threatening South Korea and Japan with missile attacks, Kim has now abrogated the 1950s armistice and, in theory, legally restarted the Korean War.
The US decision to send a few stealth bombers to fly over the Korean peninsula was an obvious message to Pyongyang that just in case it was interested in converting words into deeds, it should accept that there would a price to pay.
North Korea’s motivations in this repeated dramatic exercise of the most dangerous variety can only be guessed at. Protesting the latest round of United Nations sanctions is one of the reasons.
But the evidence is that this sort of posturing is largely designed to strengthen its ruler’s standing back home. Kim, for example, may be seeking to show some spine before his own military. Drumming up the US threat helps legitimise Pyongyang’s grip on power.
The regime, after all, has little else to show its people. North Korea is the economic opposite of its southern cousin: famine-ridden, backward, repressive and closed to the world.
The only silver lining is that the last ruler, Kim Jong-il, carried out similar international theatrics for years but eventually ended up trying to explore the possibility of making North Korea a miniature version of the Chinese economic miracle.
It is noticeable that for all the aggressive actions and talk of a return to war, Pyongyang has not shut down its joint economic zone with South Korea — an exercise that earns it an all-important $2 billion a year in revenue.
The hope then is that the present war-mongering will pass and Kim will turn to more pressing issues like securing food aid, opening up his economy and developing a vision to address his nation’s isolation.
Unfortunately this could take many years, going by the record of the country’s past leaders. In the meantime, many countries will take some mild satisfaction at how irritated and embarrassed Pyongyang’s main patron, China, is about the country’s latest round of tantrum diplomacy.