Korean quandary: It's hard for the U.S. to assess the North's threats

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North Korea's neighbors and the United States are rattled by Pyongyang's recent dire threats. Not helping matters is the American and South Korean militant response to them.

On Tuesday, the North said it will restart its long-closed plutonium reactor and increase production of nuclear weapons material. Yet none of the interested parties knows just how seriously to take North Korea and its new young leader, Kim Jong Un.

Media coverage, with footage of Mr. Kim poring over a map with a phalanx of generals behind him and thousands of screaming North Korean forces, invites ridicule. At the same time, these same North Koreans in the past have proved themselves capable of undertaking aggressive, destructive actions toward the South. With a new leader in South Korea as well, President Park Geun-hye, who is promising decisive retaliation to any North Korean action, it is hard to be relaxed about the evolving drama on the peninsula.

The United States, to reassure the South Koreans, has carried out what could be seen as provocative actions in response to the North's misbehavior. It has conducted a program of joint military exercises with South Korea but has added to the mix visits to the region by B-2 and B-52 bombers and F-22 fighter bombers.

Parties with a stake in the affair include (in addition to North Korea, South Korea and the United States) China, Japan and Russia, the other three partners in the apparently moribund six-party talks. China, annoyed at Pyongyang's newly provocative posture, reportedly has bolstered its own forces on its border with North Korea. That seems scarcely necessary, given that North Korea depends heavily on China for both food and fuel.

North Korea's fire and brimstone could be an effort by Mr. Kim to establish his credentials as his grandfather's and father's successor. It also could be an effort to extract more aid from South Korea, the United States and other past benefactors, although threats of attack are an odd way to seek help. At the worst, it could be Mr. Kim preparing to take his country to war to consolidate his leadership.

In the meantime, he is waving North Korea's nuclear weapons around and the United States is responding with military counterthreats of its own. It is important to remember that what is known of North Korea's military capacity does not include the ability to attack any U.S. military assets outside of South Korea and Japan. Whether its leaders are dangerously homicidal or not remains to be seen -- but must be guarded against.

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