South Korea is standing on high alert amid "imminent signs" that Pyongyang is about to launch an untested short or medium range missile. The news comes 24 hours after the rogue state urged all foreigners to leave the country, and a few days after it declared a "state of war" with it's southern neighbor:
We do not wish harm on foreigners in South Korea should there be a war. Foreign companies and tourists in Seoul should set up plans to take shelter and devise a way to evacuate.
This latest provocation comes days before the hermit kingdom celebrates the birthday of its founding president Kim Il-sung next Monday. Pyongyang usually marks the date with much fanfare, including displays of military might.
Although North Korea has a long tradition of eccentric behavior, this latest line of saber rattling has set a dangerous and reckless precedent. Over the past month alone, Pyongyang has threatened to turn Washington and Seoul into a "sea of fire", announced plans to restart building its nuclear arsenal, and shut down a joint industrial complex shared with South Korea.
Tensions on the peninsula are now the worst since the Korean War broke out in 1950. Earlier this week, China warned against chaos in the region. A few days earlier, president Xi Jinping tried to rein in its communist ward: "No one should be allowed to throw a region, or even the whole world, into chaos for selfish gains."
The rogue state sorely depends on Beijing for aid. And, although China endorsed the recent spate of UN sanctions against Pyongyang after its third nuclear test earlier this year, it still protects assets worth millions of dollars for the Kim dynasty in Shanghai.
According to former basketball champion Dennis Rodman who recently visited the hermit kingdom, North Korea is more afraid of China than it is of the U.S. It's latest line of theatrics may thus be interpreted as a cry for American help.
In its own state-controlled media, North Korea is portrayed as the poor victim of western imperialism. It describes the ongoing military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea as "madcap nuclear war maneuvers." Its paranoid regard for the drills can be understood by the fact that it started the Korean War in 1950 under the ruse of military exercises.
It is difficult to determine whether the young Kim believes his own propaganda. External threats after all justify North Korea's enforced isolation and whatever hardships it imposes on its people. And, anti-U.S. propaganda is the lifeblood of the regime's efforts to boost nationalist sentiment.
According to most analysts, the young dictator is simply flexing his military might before a home audience. After rising quickly through the ranks of the army by mere nepotism, the young Kim may be desperate to prove his worthiness.
At the end of last month he warned: "In the era of Marshall Kim Jong un, the greatest ever commander, all things are different from what they used to be in the past." He may regard waging war to be a rite of passage. And, maybe by raising the tempo beyond his father's usual bluster, he will feel worthy of his dictatorial stripes. He may even get a thrill from unleashing such chaos.
Nevertheless, it is hard to escape the notion that North Korea is a more frightening place under under its new ruler. Early hopes that the young Kim would be a youthful agent of change have been spectacularly dashed.
Some analysts believe that it was the young dictator who ordered the sinking of a South Korean warship three years ago which killed nearly 50 people. And, unlike his father who had mastered the art of negotiating with the outside world, Kim has escalated tensions to such a degree, it may be difficult to come back down.
As Peter King from the U.S. Congress points out: "My concern would be that he may feel to save face he has to launch some sort of attack on South Korea, or some base in the Pacific."
The question of how to respond to such provocations is not easy. The White House has tried to downplay the threat by highlighting the "disconnect between rhetoric and action." The nuclear threat against mainland America is empty. It will be years before it has the technology to launch nuclear tipped missiles.
In fact, the last long-range missile test it made in 2006 blew up after a mere 40 seconds in the air. But, it may have the capability to strike Guam. Last week, the U.S. dispatched a defense shield to the Pacific island, marking the first time in history Washington has had to deploy such means against a belligerent Pyongyang.
There are no signs that North Korea is mobilizing its 1.2 million strong army. Up to 600,000 troops are believed to be stationed in the demilitarized zone which separates the two Koreas. Up to 1 million lives may perish should war break out.
Given the technological inferiority of its military resources, the general consensus is that the rogue state will not initiate conflict. But, the U.S. is now drawing up a measured response just in case. And, as Gary Samore, Obama's former nuclear advisor points out:
"How we we carry out a proportional retaliation, without triggering a general conflict, or an assault on Seoul, is the hardest part of the problem."
The biggest danger is one of misunderstanding. Pyongyang may misread a move made by the U.S. and try to pre-empt it with an attack. And, much like the boy who cried wolf one too many times, Kim may eventually feel the need to take a more aggressive course of action in order to be heard.
The most important thing at this stage is to open a course of dialogue so that a potentially paranoid and deluded Kim does not spiral out of control. As Martin Luther King once said: "Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity."