No one was surprised when North Korea’s new supreme leader threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States—it’s hardly news when North Korea rattles its saber—but Kim Jong-un’s belligerent rhetoric goes further than his predecessor’s. He remains an unknown, unpredictable figure. Perhaps he’s acting out of youthful inexperience, or maybe he believes he must demonstrate “credibility” to the Pyongyang military and to the government he leads. Whatever the case, he has been making the world nervous.
Kim Jong-un’s gestures follow a series of North Korean missile and nuclear tests (some of them failures) over the past decade and a half. The latest missile test was of a vehicle implausibly touted as capable of reaching the continental United States. There seems little question that the weapon could reach Taiwan, Japan, and some U.S. bases in the Pacific, but Western arms specialists doubt it could do so carrying a nuclear warhead. That’s why many people in Western military circles take these new threats as another bluff, intended to extract concessions from South Korea and the United States.
After all, that has worked before. In 1998, North Korea demonstrated the ability to launch a satellite, and two years...
William Pfaff, a former editor of Commonweal, is political columnist for the International Herald Tribune in Paris. His most recent book is The Irony of Manifest Destiny: The Tragedy of America's Foreign Policy (Walker & Company).