By Joel Brinkley
Just a few months ago, on New Year's Day, North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, gave a televised speech to the nation calling for reconciliation with the South.
"The past records of inter-Korean relations," he intoned, "show that confrontation between fellow countrymen leads to nothing but war." Kim added that he intended to embark on "an all-out struggle" to rejuvenate the nation's destitute economy.
That speech came shortly after the chubby new leader was photographed riding a roller coaster at North Korea's first amusement park.
Listening to the New Year's speech and similar statements, South Korea's unification minister, Yu Woo-ik said he wondered whether the North Korean establishment "will allow changes to be achieved."
Now we know: The answer is no. Instead, we are witnessing a ridiculous melodrama playing out on the world stage. Kim is threatening to bomb South Korea and the United States. He's moving troops and missiles, urging Western diplomats to leave the country -- and more.
The United States is setting up missile-defense systems in the Pacific and warning that the U.S. will defend South Korea if the North attacks. As part of its annual military exercises with South Korea, the U.S. Air Force flew B-2 stealth bombers within sight of North Korea.
Stop! Can't everyone see this is a show, a performance, nothing more? We've seen all of this before, more than once -- though not in such a concentrated, nearly hysterical form.
The important thing to remember is that members of North Korea's military and political establishment view their nation as a national-security state. At least one-third of the north's budget is devoted to military spending. Nothing else matters. In fact, the establishment often manufactures threats to keep that notion alive. That way those people can live quite comfortably. They don't have to worry about the millions of North Koreans who survive on grass and tree bark.
Most of these are middle-aged men, and after former leader Kim Jong-il died in 2011, suddenly they were faced with taking direction from a new leader who was in his late 20s. That would be difficult for many people worldwide, but particularly so in Asia's age-hierarchical culture.
The current drama began when North Korea conducted its third nuclear-weapons test in February. Almost right away, the United Nations Security Council denounced North Korea and voted to impose new sanctions. China, the country's only true ally, joined the vote.
With that, Kim's mandarins seem to have convinced him to abandon his stance as a leader who cared for his people -- an antithetical idea for most of them. They deleted the online roller-coaster photos. But they apparently couldn't get Kim to do everything they wanted. So they doctored at least two photos to show him participating in events he didn't actually attend.
Another Photoshopped picture made public last month showed landing craft hitting a beach. But in fact, photo editors for several publications found that it had been doctored to show many more landing craft than the North probably has.
What better evidence could there be that we're watching a histrionic drama? After all, the North faces no significant threats, from anyone, and its leaders know that.
South Korea maintains a unification ministry whose purpose is not to conquer the North but to reunify the two states as one big, happy family -- wishful thinking in my view. And since the Korean War 60 years ago, have you heard American politicians threaten an unprovoked attack on North Korea? Of course not.
At home, Kim "is trying to show how tough he is," Michael Green, a former National Security Council officer for East Asia, told me. And at the military's behest, he's "trying to fend off international pressure as they approach the culmination of their nuclear-missile program."
After past episodes like this, the West usually agreed to negotiate, and out of that North Korea often got new foreign aid. This is a well-worn pattern. Early this month, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (a South Korean diplomat) said he believed that tensions had grown so high that negotiations were necessary this time, too, because the North appears to be "on a collision course with the international community."
Some experts believe North Korea's posturing is still another ploy to obtain foreign aid, and that is certainly one of the goals. But at the same time, this provocative series of events is drawing more international attention than previous inflammatory moments because of Kim's apparent aim to show his mandarins that he can be tough.
That, Green said, "adds a dangerous and unpredictable element to an otherwise predictable pattern."