North Korea: A "Real and Present Danger"?

04/04/2013 10:23 am ET | Updated Jun 04, 2013

Setting a new and dangerous tempo, North Korea has stepped up its bellicose rhetoric against the U.S. It has now warned that a "merciless operation" is underway, and the "moment of explosion is approaching fast."

Describing the threats as a "real and clear danger", Washington has sent a missile defense shield to the Pacific island of Guam. This is the first time in history the U.S. has ever had to deploy such means in the face of a belligerent Pyongyang.

Although the hermit kingdom has a long tradition of eccentric behavior, this latest line of saber rattling has reached a feverish pitch, forcing even Beijing, its long-term ally, to call for calm.

According to the Guardian: "In the present situation, China believes all sides must remain calm and exercise restraint and not take actions which are mutually provocative and must certainly not take actions which will worsen the situation."

Playing from a similar playbook as his late father, perhaps the baby faced Kim Jong-un is simply flexing his military might before a home audience. Kim certainly has some weird shoes to fill since Kim Jong-il passed away a few years ago.

At this stage, it is impossible to determine whether the young Kim will follow in his father's theatrical footsteps, or whether he has somewhat grander ambitions. The psychological consequences of growing up a in hermit kingdom shut off from the rest of world with Kim senior as a father are difficult to fathom.

The danger of a miscalculation by both Washington and Seoul is thus real, and one that could potentially lead to disastrous consequences if the usual path of further isolation is continued.

In the past, the threat of mutually assured destruction was enough to deter nuclear war. But, North Korea may just prove to be the exception to the rule. The ruling dynasty has no problem starving its people, and therefore may lack the compassion required to avoid such annihilation.

In the late 1950s, Mao Zedong shocked even the Russians when during a trip to Moscow he suggested that nuclear war may not be so bad after all: "If the worst came to the worst and half of mankind died, the other half would remain. Imperialism would be destroyed, and the whole world would become socialist." And, as Gideon Rachman points out in the Financial Times:

"North Korea has replicated some of the very worst features of Maoist China: the isolation from the outside world, the labour camps, the cult of personality and the willingness to tolerate mass starvation at home. The latter is particularly chilling, when one remembers that nuclear deterrence is meant to rely on an unwillingness to accept the death of millions of your compatriots."

But, America's leading experts on North Korea, such as former ambassador Chris Hill argue that the rogue state has no real intention of starting a conflict with the U.S. He says that the real danger is an inexperienced leader provoking war by accident, and any such conflict would be short lived, without resorting to anything involving nuclear weapons.

Given the current situation, there is clearly an urgent need to start talks with Pyongyang. Earlier this week, Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general warned that the stand-off had gone too far:

"Nuclear threats are not a game. Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counteractions, and fuel fear and instability. Things must calm down as this situation, made worse by the lack of communication, could lead down a path that nobody should want to follow."

According to former basketball champion Dennis Rodman who recently visited Pyongyang, all Kim wants is for President Barack Obama to call him. Why? Apparently, he is more worried about a threat from China than he is from the U.S. Although Obama may be reluctant to build ties with a rogue state, sometimes diplomacy requires a leader to do so.

Talks at this point will lessen the likelihood of conflict. Both the U.S. and South Korea have to drop the precondition that North Korea must denuclearize with immediate effect. Although this should still be the ultimate aim, talks will have to build up to this point as Pyongyang clearly sees this as its only bargaining chip. The only route for peace will be an open line of communication.

Moreover, if Obama continues to ignore Kim, he may feel like he is forced into a nuclear corner. Rather like the unpopular child at school who resorts to violence as a cry for help, it seems like Kim Jong-un just needs a bit of attention. As Kishore Mahbubani from the National University of Singapore points out:

"Maybe it is time to show North Korea that it does not have to behave weirdly to get talks going. This could well be Barack Obama's enduring legacy and gift to the American people: to prepare them for a world where the U.S. is not the only superpower. And a shift towards normality means that the U.S. must also begin talking to all its enemies, just as every other state does."

It's time for the president to pick up the phone. A act so simple could put an end to these ridiculous provocations which could accidentally turn into something rather frightening. As the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu once said: "The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting."