Rarely has the government of a nation so defied the governments of other nations as that of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
Just as rarely have other governments, including that of US President Barack Obama, shown themselves so hapless in trying to counter that defiance.
North Korea last week carried out its third nuclear test, this one in defiance of resolutions by the UN and warnings from around the world. Pyongyang said the test was intended “to express the surging resentment of the army and people” of North Korea and to demonstrate their will “to defend the sovereignty of the country to the last.”
In response, Obama issued a statement saying that the US “remains vigilant in the face of North Korean provocations and steadfast in our defense commitments to allies.”
The president added that the nuclear test “warrants further swift and credible action” — but did not say what that “firm action” might be.
However, the day after the nuclear test, the US Navy cruiser Lake Erie shot down a ballistic missile that had been launched on a test flight from the island of Kauai in Hawaii.
The North Koreans had said their nuclear bomb was smaller and lighter than before, indicating that they intended to mount it atop a ballistic missile.
Two days after the nuclear test, the South Korean government disclosed that it had developed a cruise missile able to strike deep into North Korea.
For the rest of the week, the protests and condemnations of the nuclear tests flew like missiles toward North Korea.
The South Koreans were the most vocal, some talking about retaliating with a pre-emptive strike. The Japanese were not far behind. Distant Indonesia, Singapore, Australia, India and Sri Lanka all chimed in.
Even the Chinese, North Korea’s strongest allies, expressed displeasure — but evidently did not threaten to cut off economic aid.
The Russian government, successors to the Soviet Union that put Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather, into power after World War II, conferred with the Chinese and expressed its concern.
Only Iran, which has its own embryonic nuclear weapons program, applauded.
Western and Asian specialists in nuclear matters speculated that the North Koreans and Iranians were collaborating on fashioning nuclear arms and Iranian observers were reported to be in North Korea for Tuesday’s test.
The rattle of criticism only brought North Korean defiance to a crescendo. Rodong Sinmun, an official newspaper, said the South Korean “puppet regime’s” move to tighten sanctions amounted to a “declaration of war” that would “only invite a merciless retaliatory strike.”
The Pyongyang propaganda fire hose spewed vitriol on South Korean President Lee Myung-bak just before he is to leave office on Feb. 25. Calling him a “traitor for all ages,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that Lee was “much upset by the DPRK’s [North Korea’s] third nuclear test,” and added “this is nothing but death-bed frenzy.”
“The US hostile policy toward [North Korea] is increasing the danger of a war on the Korean Peninsula day by day,” said KCNA, which speaks for the Kim regime. Acquiring a “nuclear deterrent is the most just step for shattering the aggressive moves of the US,” it added.
Japan also got a North Korean browbeating. “Japanese politicians,” KCNA said, “have not yet discarded the delusional outlook on the world which was shaped by politicians of a defeated country in the last century. They are politically half-witted guys ignorant of the concept of the mode of existence of a normal state.”
This comes from a nation in which large numbers of citizens are starving and has one part of the economy that is is flat on its back while another part runs on corruption. Its large army is poorly fed, trained and equipped, and would be overrun by the South Koreans in an open fight.
However — and here is where it gets hard to figure out what South Korea, the US and the rest of the world could do to force Pyongyang to behave — in a military strike by South Korea and the US, North Korea’s conventional forces could inflict substantial death and destruction before they were defeated.
Then there is Pyongyang’s nuclear weapon. It will take time before it is ready for military use, but no one knows how long. Once the North Koreans have “weaponized” it, to apply the military jargon, then it is anyone’s guess whether Kim Jong-un will use it.
Richard Halloran is a commentator in Hawaii.