Kim Jong Un's Thermonuclear Joyride

Following North Korea's sixth nuclear test, advertised by Pyongyang as an ICBM-ready hydrogen bomb, it was good to hear Defense Secretary James Mattis talking tough. But that won't stop North Korea from building nuclear missiles. It won't stop North Korea's threats against the U.S. and our allies. I'd wager it won't even interfere with Kim Jong Un's enjoyment of his apparently ample meals.

Mattis stressed Kim's peril in his remarks on Sunday, when he said: "Any threat to the United States or its territories, including Guam or our allies will be met with a massive military response." Mattis added the backhanded threat that "we are not looking to the total annihilation of a country, namely, North Korea, but as I said, we have many options to do so."

But does Kim have any reason to think the U.S. would exercise those options?

North Korea has long been a geyser of threats, including its threat last month to use the U.S. territory of Guam for missile practice, its launch last month of a ballistic missile over Japan, and its threat accompanying Sunday's nuclear test that it could use thermonuclear weapons for a "super-powerful EMP attack."

The U.S., Japan and South Korea have responded with shows of force, but like a multitude of displays done before, the de facto message is one of great muscle but no will to fight. None of that force has been used to strike North Korea. Kim holds Seoul hostage, and America, while groping for a solution to North Korea's rapidly compounding threats, has no appetite to risk a replay of the carnage of the 1950-1953 Korean War, potentially amplified by nuclear weapons in the hands of Pyongyang.

With the caveat that I have no inside information, it's intriguing to imagine what's going on right now in Kim Jong Un's head. He's a young tyrant, now in his mid-thirties, who inherited power upon the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011. Some young men inherit a family fortune. Kim inherited supremacy over a totalitarian ruling party, fully accessorized with a nation state, a gulag, a nuclear weapons program and one of the world's largest standing armies -- with artillery already dug in to threaten the fat prize of capitalist Seoul, with its population of 10 million South Koreans just the other side of the Demilitarized Zone.

Since inheriting the keys to this grotesque family estate, Kim has presided over four of North Korea's six nuclear tests to date (one in 2013, two in 2016 and the latest this Sunday). Under his rule, North Korea has amassed a nuclear arsenal estimated by various experts to be in the double digits, perhaps now including thermonuclear weapons. On Kim Jong Un's watch, North Korea has advertised its pursuit of the ability to launch nuclear missiles from submarines, and acquired the ability to miniaturize nuclear warheads and mount them on missiles. In July, North Korea succesfully tested two ICBMs. And, as mentioned, in August North Korea threatened the U.S. territory of Guam and launched a missile over Japan. And of course there was the test on Sunday of what North Korea celebrated as a hydrogen bomb.