Korean Poker: Five-Card Dud?

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North Korean soldiers march along a highway on the edge of Pyongyang on March 16.

It seems paradoxical to say it, given Pyongyang’s almost daily exercises in escalation, but the North Korean leadership almost certainly does not want to go to war.

Not that it would flinch at a massive loss of life if it meant propping up the regime. That, after all, has been the logic by which the Kim dynasty has run the country for more than half a century.

The problem is that a full-scale conflict would almost certainly mean the destruction of the North Korean state and the likelihood of a violent end for its young leader, Kim Jong Un. “No, he doesn’t want to start a war because a war is suicidal from his perspective,” says John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies and North Korea watcher at Yonsei University in Seoul. “For him the endgame is not a war.”

Like his father before him, Kim is focused on surviving. While the isolated North Korean leadership is sometimes seen as erratic and crazy — a case not helped by Kim’s partying with Dennis Rodman or publishing photos of a map showing strike plans for the continental U.S. — it remains committed to staying in power. It has survived for half a century by avoiding any fights that it can’t win or at least, as with the Korean War, draw to a bloody stalemate.

For all its goading, North Korea is unlikely to want to start a doomed conflict now.

Full dispatch here.