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North Korea's nuclear ambitions are no joke

NORTH KOREA and its leaders have long been the butt of jokes.

MIGHT: Soldiers attend a rally at the Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang yesterday to celebrate the success of the country's nuclear test. Picture: Reuters
MIGHT: Soldiers attend a rally at the Kim Il-Sung Square in Pyongyang yesterday to celebrate the success of the country's nuclear test. Picture: Reuters

Oddball, outlandish and eternally secretive, the country has provided a rich seam of humour for the world's comedians.

Not least among them is American satirist Andy Borowitz, a columnist with the New Yorker who tweets under the name @KimJongNumberUn in a risible take on North Korea's young "supreme leader".

In a spoof column yesterday entitled A Letter from Kim Jong-un, addressed to Dear World People, this caricature version of the North Korean leader fictitiously poses the question as to how his country can possibly defend itself against hostile foes with nuclear weapons.

His conclusion, which he delivers in the "immortal words of my dad, the glorious Kim Jong-il", is that the "only thing that stops a bad guy with a nuke is a good guy with a nuke".

All this of course is just Borowitz's way of trying to provide some levity to a global stand-off that over the last few days has reached a tense new level after North Korea conducted the country's third nuclear test on Tuesday.

And in a further show of military might, soldiers celebrated the successful test yesterday.

Not only did the latest test draw condemnation from the US, Japan, Europe and even North Korea's only major ally, China, but yesterday the tension escalated further with South Korea deploying a new cruise missile system capable of "hitting the office of North Korea's leader".

This was Seoul's way of ramming home the message that it will not be intimidated and will have no hesitation in striking Pyongyang if it feels an attack by the North is imminent.

Yes, we have heard this sort of sabre rattling before. For years, North Korea has been using the threat of tests as weapons against its neighbours and the US.

On the face of it, doing so would not seem like a particularly smart strategy. To begin with, if the test fails, you look vulnerable. If it succeeds, you almost appear as a nation with a dangerous, aggressive swagger even if you are still not carrying the nuclear stick.

That, in turn, could all too easily make you the target of a pre-emptive strike aimed at making sure you never get the chance to launch one yourself.

Give this, why does Pyongyang persist in pursuing its current, seemingly absurd and provocative brinkmanship?

The answer is that, far from being inept and ill considered, it is and has for decades proved to be an effective diplomatic formula.

George Friedman, chairman of the global intelligence think-tank Stratfor, eloquently summed it up as follows.

He said: "First the North Koreans positioned themselves as ferocious by appearing to have, or to be on the verge of having, devastating power.

"Second, they positioned themselves as being weak such that no matter how ferocious they are, there would be no point in pushing them because they are going to collapse anyway.

"And third, they positioned themselves as crazy, meaning pushing them would be dangerous as they were liable to engage in the greatest risks imaginable at the slightest provocation."

He said this "ferocious, weak, crazy" strategy had served Pyongyang in good stead.

Using it, the North Koreans have effectively held the world's great powers to ransom, forcing them to the negotiating table often at the cost of food aid and financial help as a sweetener to ensure Pyongyang does not further pursue its nuclear ambitions.

Historically, Pyongyang's ally China has acted as the go-between for this process.

However, there are signs Beijing might just be getting a little fed up with Pyongyang's tactical shenanigans and it may be looking to rethink how it handles its North Korean strategic buffer.

Until now, China has appeared unable or unwilling to rein in its communist ally. That said, the two nations have much in common.

In an essay a few years ago one of China's most influential social critics described his feeling toward North Korea as "a straggler looking back sympathetically at someone trailing even further behind".

As for the rest of the world's take on the regime of Kim Jong-un, notably the US, much has been made lately about Washington's lethargy in handling the crisis.

At the root of this slowness, insist some analysts, lies a dearth of Korea experts at the top of the Obama administration's Asia policy team.

According to the US-based Foreign Policy (FP) magazine, almost all the senior officials handling the North Korea crisis have specialities outside of Korean affairs.

This stands in marked contrast to the previous two occasions in October 2006 and May 2009 when Pyongyang carried out nuclear tests.

A senior Washington Asia hand was quoted as telling FP: "There are no people who work Korea at the top levels of the policy team... they've been in the driver's seat, but they don't know where they are going."

Yesterday, the stand-off continued with President Barack Obama reaffirming US commitments to Japan's security and pledging to work with the country to galvanise action at the United Nations Security Council aimed at impeding North Korea's nuclear and ballistic missile programmes.

Meanwhile, China said it has increased radiation monitoring in its north-east following North Korea's nuclear test but found "no immediate abnormalities".

In his spoof Kim Jong-un letter in the New Yorker, Borowitz gives us all a laugh when his fictitious North Korean leader talks about founding a "Nuclear Retaliation Association to defend the sovereign right of every nation on the planet to engulf that planet in a hellish inferno".

But all joking aside, the magnitude of the explosive tremor from Pyongyang's latest test now revised from 4.9 to 5.1, is larger than any previous North Korean nuclear detonation.

Any hopes the first year of the Kim Jong-un's dictatorship might be more benign than that of his father Kim Jong Il were effectively dashed with the blast.

The son has not only followed in his father's footsteps but has delivered nuclear results his father could only dream about.

North Korea's latest big bang is not yet in the same league as that produced by the thermonuclear weapons in the hands of the US and other global powers.

Any addition, though, is the last thing the world needs. And that is no joke.

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