Pyongyang Blusters, and U.S. Worries about Quieter Risks

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SEOUL, South Korea -- This week, North Korea's young leader, Kim Jung-un, ordered his underlings to prepare for a missile attack on the United States. He appeared at a command center in front of a wall map with the bold, unlikely title, "Plans to Attack the Mainland U.S." Earlier in the month, his generals boasted of developing a "Korean-style" nuclear warhead that could be fitted atop a long-range missile.

But the missile systems that figure in Mr. Kim's blitz of threats and orders do not yet have the range to approach American shores. There is no evidence his nuclear weapons can be shrunk to fit atop a missile. And a prominent photograph showing Mr. Kim's military making a Normandy-style beach landing appears to have been manufactured, raising questions about whether his forces could possibly repeat the feat his grandfather pulled off in 1950, ordering a ground attack to open the Korean War.

On top of all that, most countries on the verge of a major military assault do not broadcast their battle plans to the world.

"You would expect such a military order to be issued in secret," said Kim Min-seok, spokesman of the South Korean Defense Ministry. "We believe that by revealing it to the media and publicizing it to the world, North Korea is playing psychology."

In fact, it is the abilities that Mr. Kim is not showing off that have the Obama administration most worried. The cyberattacks on South Korea's banking system and television broadcasters two weeks ago were surprisingly successful, as was the torpedo attack three years ago this week on the Cheonan, a naval corvette, that killed 46 South Korean sailors. The North has never acknowledged involvement in either -- though the South believes it was responsible for both and so do American experts.

"We're convinced this is about Kim solidifying his place with his own people and his own military, who still don't know him," one senior administration official said Friday. He added, "We're worried about what he's going to do next, but we're not worried about what he seems to be threatening to do next."

The cyberattacks and torpedo attack have something in common: Unlike the missile attacks and beach landings that Mr. Kim seems to be suggesting are imminent, they are hard to trace to North Korea, at least immediately. As a result, they are hard to retaliate against, and in fact the South never struck back militarily for the sinking of the Cheonan, even after a commission of inquiry, with experts from outside South Korea, concluded it was the work of a submarine-launched torpedo.

To North Korea experts in Washington and Seoul, there is something familiar in the country's threats to "keep the White House in the cross hairs of our long-range missiles." Such threat of armed brinkmanship -- the catchphrase in the 1990s was that Seoul would become a "sea of fire," a term recently revived by North Korea's news agencies -- has in the past drawn its adversaries to the bargaining table with economic concessions. But at the same time, the tensions with the outside world provide the government with opportunities to elevate its leader's status among his people -- which might be more important to a young, untested leader than it was to his father and grandfather.

According to the view that North Korea's propaganda machine pounds into its citizens' minds, the North is a tiny nation besieged by hostile outside forces, one that survived despite decades of sanctions and can finally stand up to both its longtime Chinese ally and American enemy -- all thanks to the strong "military-first" leadership of the Kim family and the country's nuclear arsenal.

In such a setting, Mr. Kim's trip to a border island on a wooden boat -- it almost seemed designed to create a "Washington crossing the Delaware" motif -- is proof of his "daring and pluck," as the country's main party newspaper, Rodong, explained. Rodong also declared about North Korea's nuclear weapons: "Let the American imperialists and their followers know! We are not a pushover like Iraq or Libya." The first, famously, had no nuclear weapons; the second gave up its nascent nuclear program in late 2003, a move North Korea describes as Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi's greatest mistake.

In the propaganda world that the three generations of the Kim dynasty has created, Mr. Kim is "a great iron-willed general admired by all of his people, including real generals who have actually served in the military," said Lee Sung-yoon, North Korea specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. "For the Kim III, fantasy is reality."

Keeping the fantasy up has required a lot of work in the past month, with many visits to military units on both of the country's coasts, and a lot of conferences at midnight with generals.

Yet in each of these scenes, North Korea's propagandists sometimes made Mr. Kim look as much a clumsy actor as a new leader of one of the world's most belligerent governments.

For one, North Korean state-run media on March 12 released a photo showing Mr. Kim arriving at an island within the gun range of South Korean marines and quoted him as threatening to "cut the windpipes of the enemies." But it strained credibility that he traveled to a region he called a powder keg on a small unarmed wooden boat, as shown in the photo.

On Tuesday, North Korea released a photo showing Mr. Kim watching hovercrafts storm a snow-covered beach in eastern North Korea. But it did not take long for journalists and analysts to conclude that the picture was clumsily doctored to add more amphibious landing vehicles and make the drill look far more imposing than it really was.

Then on Friday, photos released by the North's state media, which also showed signs of digital manipulation, featured Mr. Kim huddling with his top generals during a midnight meeting to approve "plans to strike the mainland U.S." A military chart behind them showed a series of lines shooting out of North Korea and hitting major cities in the United States, including those on the East Coast. Even if the North Koreans had such missiles -- most analysts doubt it does -- would they really intend to launch them at the United States in what would be a suicidal action for the Pyongyang government?

"We're all trying to put him on the couch," said Jonathan D. Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution. "A year ago the U.S. and the Chinese saw at least the possibility that you could do business with him. But he has steadily reverted to form," adopting the approach of his father and grandfather in using the perception of an external threat to solidify support at home.

On Saturday those threats were South Korea and "the Americans and their puppets," a statement from the North said. The two Koreas "were back to a state of war," it said, and the North's foes "should know that everything is different under our peerless general and dear Marshal Kim Jong-un." While many fear that Mr. Kim's rhetoric is building up toward some action, Mr. Pollack held out the hope that the threats could abate as United States and South Korean military exercises, which infuriate the North, wind up at the end of April.

Choe Sang-Hun reported from Seoul, South Korea, and David E. Sanger from Washington.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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