North Korea’s Nuclear Cul-De-Sac

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during a March 11 sail aboard what is most likely a nonnuclear vessel of the North Korean navy

The mutual bluster and braggadocio persisted over the weekend on the Korean Peninsula, as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un continued to drive his state down an atomic dead end. He brayed anew at the state of war between his impoverished nation and the alliance of South Korea and the U.S., at least when his websites, seemingly hacked over the weekend, were operational.

The U.S. military, for its part, saw Kim a pair of B-2 bombers and raised him a pair of F-22 fighters. The best fighters in the world, the F-22s — normally based in Japan — flew to South Korea’s Osan Air Base to participate in the continuing U.S.–South Korean monthlong military exercise that has unnerved Pyongyang.

It’s almost as if the U.S. Air Force has moved a branch of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum to South Korea. First, Eisenhower-era B-52 flew missions over the peninsula, followed by Reagan-era B-2s. With Sunday’s dispatch of the George W. Bush–era F-22s, the Pentagon is running out of airpower muscles to flex. It will be years before the next-generation fighter, the F-35, is operational.

(PHOTOS: North Korea Ratchets Up Tension on the Peninsula)

But North Korea can take solace from the fact that the F-22, operational for three U.S. wars, has seen action in none of them. Designed to combat Soviet fighters that were never built, the world’s best and most costly fighter — at $350 million a pop — is now poised to strike fear into a nation that cannot even adequately feed its people.

“The real threat is to what North Korea might be boxing itself into,” Representative Peter King, a Congressman from New York, said on ABC Sunday. “Kim Jong Un is trying to establish himself. He’s trying to be the tough guy. He is 28, 29 years old, and he keeps going further and further out. And I don’t know if he can get himself back in.”

That’s the nuclear cul-de-sac: with his threat to attack the U.S. and South Korea with nuclear weapons, Kim has effectively painted himself into a corner. Anything less than that could be seen as retreat among his more hard-line military generals, whose country he rules only with their blessing.

King, a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he fears that a face-saving, tit-for-tat military exchange could spiral out of control. “I wouldn’t be that concerned about them hitting the mainland U.S. right now, even any U.S. territory,” he said. “My concern would be that he may feel, to save face, he has to launch some sort an attack on South Korea or some base in the Pacific. And then the President of Korea, President Park [Geun-hye] … may respond against North Korea.”

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Tensions escalated further over the weekend when North Korea threatened to shutter a factory complex it operates just inside its border with South Korea. The eight-year-old Kaesong industrial park is a vital source of cash for North Korea, with more than 50,000 citizens earning close to $100 million annually. The factory, which has continued to operate normally — with hundreds of South Korean workers traveling to work there each day — has withstood prior strains between the two Koreas. U.S. experts say its shutdown would be grim news.

The military calculus is pretty simple on the peninsula: after a half-century of preparation, North Korea’s massive numbers of artillery tubes and rockets could initially inflict tremendous damage on South Korea, including Seoul’s 10 million residents.

But, as U.S. officials have made clear privately for years, any major strike by North Korea against U.S. or South Korea targets would be suicidal: neither the U.S. nor the South Koreans have any interest in returning to the status quo ante — “the way things were before” — if the balloon goes up. The Americans and South Koreans know this, and have certainly made it clear to China, North Korea’s closest ally. It’s a safe bet North Korea knows it too.

The only question now is whether Kim believes it.

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