Why is Kim-Jong Un, the new boy emperor of the “hermit kingdom,” choosing this time to rattle the sabers?

NBC News reports this morning:

North Korea put its rocket units on standby Friday to attack U.S. military bases in South Korea and the Pacific, after repeated threats and one day after two American stealth bombers flew over the Korean Peninsula in a military exercise.

What is different about Kim’s threat this time: an unnamed American official “warned that the isolated communist state is ‘not a paper tiger’ and its reaction should not be dismissed as ‘pure bluster.’”

As we all know, North Korea stands alone as a pure model totalitarian state — the remaining Communist country most resembling the Soviet Union of the ‘20s and ‘30s when Joseph Stalin attempted to erase any existing independent civil society, or Mao’s China in the age of the Cultural Revolution when that nation literally went mad in a domestic orgy of violence and destruction in the name of building revolution and smashing any semblance of “bourgeois” behavior.

“The time has come,” little Kim is quoted as saying, “to settle accounts with the U.S. imperialists in view of the prevailing situation.” Of course, the only such situation is that created by either Kim or the North Korean generals who are testing his mettle, perhaps because they wish to control the nation themselves and are forcing him to a test which, if he does not pass, could possibly lead to a military coup. “Bonapartism,” the Bolsheviks called it in the early days of the Soviet Union — they feared if order was not restored after taking power and a civil war was underway, the military could quickly move to run the USSR on its own.

The U.S. official went on to say that although the world knows Kim is inexperienced, they do not know whether or not he has any real wisdom. Indeed, just last week a North Korean soldier at the 38th parallel separating South from North Korea threw a hand grenade at one of the soldiers patrolling the South’s side of the line of demarcation. Such a provocative act could not have been taken independently. In addition, Kim-Jong Un also threatened the South with a nuclear attack.

The government-controlled media also published an article presenting the populace with an ideological justification for the threats. “The opportunity for peacefully settling the DPRK-U.S. relations,” the paper’s propagandist Minju Joson wrote, “is no longer available as the U.S. opted for staking its fate. Consequently, there remains only the settlement of accounts by a physical means.” Ms. Joson continued:

A battle to be fought by the DPRK against the U.S. will become a war for national liberation to defend the sovereignty and dignity of the country and, at the same time, a revolutionary war to defend the human cause of independence and the justice of the international community.

The words emulate the kind of clarion call familiar to observers of revolutionary movements in their earliest phase, as they tried to rally the population and  army to pull together to save the Revolution from foreign threats. Immediately, Kim gave the order for a mass rally of tens of thousands to be held in the main square of Pyongyang a few days ago. The assembled masses yelled in union: “Rip the Puppet Masters to Death!” As the regime put its rocket launchers on standby — with missiles easily able to hit South Korea as well as other nearby nations — the United States responded with a show of force, sending two nuclear-capable stealth bombers to the region.

That act is of a different sort from what previous administrations have done. We might recall the episode when Madeleine Albright herself went to North Korea to meet Kim Jung-Il, the present leader’s deceased father, and held out the hand of friendship. The Clinton administration and other successor administrations signed quickly ignored agreements with North Korea that gave the appearance of the regime’s willingness to give up a nuclear arsenal. As usual, attempts to gain the good will of the totalitarian regime through a policy of appeasement failed to have any impact.

It is hard, looking at the boyish leader with his Mickey Mouse wannabes behind the podium with his model wife, and his carousing with Dennis Rodman who many argued inadvertently was showing the North Koreans that the United States was not so bad, to take his threats seriously.

One thing is certain. The CIA does not have any top-level covert officers among the military leadership, or indeed among the Communist Party Politburo. North Korea is a lot more closed than even Communist Cuba or modern-day state capitalist China, whose regimes are more open, and in which I suspect it is far easier to infiltrate agents or to turn apparatchiks so they work for the United States. Hence, any response to North Korean threats must be taken seriously, and the extent of the regime’s real attitudes can only be judged by evaluation of the new, more heated rhetoric emanating from the mouth of Kim-Jong Un. And don’t count on another journey by Dennis Rodman to perform some magic that will soften the new threats. I suspect that were Rodman to fly there tomorrow, he might very well find himself under arrest as an “imperialist agent.”

So as most people talked about the U.S. predicament in Syria and the Obama administration’s obvious policy failures in dealing with that growing crisis, Kim-Jong Un has seized this moment to up the ante in Asia, hoping that the U.S. will be distracted and perhaps allow him to make moves against South Korea. Let us hope that this time in Asia, the administration will act accordingly and show that its commitment to South Korea’s independence is firm.

Addendum:

For those who do not think North Korea is a danger, read this report at The Daily Beast by an expert on the issue. Gordon Chang explains why Kim-Jong Un’s current posturing is very different from the threats made earlier by his father.