North Korea’s real threat might be electronic

A photo issued by North Korea showed Kim Jong Un presiding over Thursday over a meeting of his strategic rocket force.
KCNA via Reuters
A photo issued by North Korea showed Kim Jong Un presiding over Thursday over a meeting of his strategic rocket force.

SEOUL — This week, North Korea’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, ordered his underlings to prepare for a missile attack on the United States. He appeared at a command center in front of a wall map with the bold, unlikely title, ‘‘Plans to attack the Mainland US.’’ Earlier in the month, his generals boasted of developing a ‘‘Korean-style’’ nuclear warhead that could be fitted atop a long-range missile.

But the missile systems that figure in Kim’s blitz of threats and orders do not yet have the range to approach US shores. There is no evidence his nuclear weapons can be shrunk to fit atop a missile. And a prominent photograph showing Kim’s military launching a Normandy-style beach landing appears to have been manufactured, raising questions about whether his forces could possibly repeat the feat his grandfather pulled off in 1950, launching a ground attack to open the Korean War.

On top of all that, most countries on the verge of a major military assault do not broadcast their battle plans to the world.


“You would expect such a military order to be issued in secret,’’ said Kim Min Seok, spokesman of the South Korean Defense Ministry. ‘‘We believe that by revealing it to the media and publicizing it to the world, North Korea is playing psychology.’’

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In fact, it is the abilities that Kim is not showing off that have the Obama administration most worried. The cyberattacks on South Korea’s banking system and television broadcasters two weeks ago were surprisingly successful, as was the torpedo attack three years ago this week on the Cheonan, a naval ship, that killed 46 South Korean sailors. The North has never acknowledged involvement in either — though the South believes it was responsible for both and so do US analysts.

“We’re convinced this is about Kim solidifying his place with his own people and his own military, who still don’t know him,’’ one senior administration official said Friday. He added: ‘‘We’re worried about what he’s going to do next, but we’re not worried about what he seems to be threatening to do next.’’

The cyberattacks and torpedo attack have something in common: Unlike the missile attacks and beach landings that Kim seems to be suggesting are imminent, they are hard to trace back to North Korea, at least immediately. As a result, they are hard to retaliate against, and in fact the South never struck back militarily for the sinking of the Cheonan, even after a commission of inquiry, with experts from outside South Korea, concluded it was the work of a submarine-launched torpedo.

To North Korea experts in Washington and Seoul, there is something familiar in the country’s threats to ‘‘keep the White House in the cross hairs of our long-range missiles.’’ Such threat of armed brinkmanship — the catch phrase in the 1990s was that Seoul would become a ‘‘sea of fire,’’ a term recently revived by North Korea’s news agencies — has in the past drawn its adversaries to the bargaining table with economic concessions.


But at the same time, the tensions with the outside world provide the government with opportunities to elevate its leader’s status among his people — which may be more important to a young, untested leader than it was to his father and grandfather.

According to the view that North Korea’s propaganda machine pounds into its citizens’ minds, the North is a tiny nation besieged by hostile outside forces, one that survived despite decades of sanctions and can finally stand up to both its US foe and its longtime Chinese ally — all thanks to the strong ‘‘military-first’’ leadership of the Kim family and the country’s nuclear arsenal.

In such a setting, Kim’s trip to a border island on a wooden boat — it almost seemed designed to create a ‘‘Washington crossing the Delaware’’ motif — is proof of his ‘‘daring and pluck,’’ as the country’s main party newspaper Rodong explained.

In the propaganda world the three generations of the Kim dynasty have created, Kim is ‘‘a great iron-willed general admired by all of his people, including real generals who have actually served in the military,’’ said Lee Sung Yoon, North Korea specialist at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. ‘‘For the Kim III, fantasy is reality.’’

Keeping the fantasy up has required a lot of work in the past month, with many visits to military units on both of the country’s coasts, and a lot of conferences at midnight with generals. ‘‘A year ago the US and the Chinese saw at least the possibility that you could do business with him,’’ said Jonathan D. Pollack, a North Korea expert at the Brookings Institution. “But he has steadily reverted to form,’’ adopting the approach of his father and grandfather in using the perception of an external threat to solidify support at home.