North Korea dictator Kim Jong Un's 2017 intimidation offensive is so uniquely threatening it deserves its own nickname: Kim's "Paranoid Spring."
In January, Kim Jong Un seeded this extraordinary season of fear by threatening to strike South Korea, Japan and the U.S. with ballistic missiles. The fear factor rose on February 12 when North Korea successfully launched a solid fuel intermediate range ballistic missile.
Then came the assassination in Malaysia of Kim Jong Un's half-brother, Kim Jong Nam. The assassins apparently used VX nerve agent — yes, a chemical agent that when delivered in large quantities in a missile warhead is a weapon of mass destruction. South Korea says evidence definitively ties North Korea to Nam's very public execution in Kuala Lumpur's international airport.
Threats, murder and weapons of mass destruction have provoked serious responses. The U.S., Japan and South Korea are reportedly contemplating "military action to force regime change in North Korea." Yes, that's war. China, North Korea's semi-friend, has condemned Pyongyang's most recent ballistic missile tests. Kim Jong Nam was regarded as a friend of Beijing — and that may have been one reason his brother had him murdered.
For decades, North Korean intimidation offensives have followed a rather predictable script. The Pyongyang regime conducts a forbidden missile test, authors a violent incident or two, threatens war. The scripted threats take East Asia to the edge of all-out war.
But war's edge is the goal, not war's abyss. North Korea then seeks a pay-off. Even if food, fuel and other aid are not forthcoming, a month or so with Pyongyang in the global spotlight may be sufficient political reward. Here's a cherished Pyongyang narrative: fearless North Korea confronted rich and powerful nations, the U.S., South Korea and Japan, perhaps even China.
Initially, 2017's intimidation offensive followed the usual script. Kim's regime definitely plotted and timed the intimidation offensive's key military technology demonstration. The February 12 launch of the Pukguksong-2 (Polaris-2) was a well-choreographed threat staged and filmed for maximum propaganda value. Kim wanted the world to know his regime possesses a missile it can launch on short notice, from either a submarine or tracked transporter-erector launcher .
The Pukguksong-2 shrinks a defender's "warning time" of impending attack. Missiles on subs or on TELs hidden in tunnels means North Korea could launch second-wave attacks.
The Pukguksong-2 missile theater had a certain rationality. Though the capabilities were new, the "threat drama" imitated past performances.
Then Nam was assassinated. Rumors of new opposition within North Korea to Kim Jong Un appeared, followed by reports that his regime used anti-aircraft guns to execute several disloyal senior officials.
This week North Korea touted its latest missile test, a volley of four missiles launched on March 6, as "practice" for a strike on American military bases in Japan.
Erratic, violent and paranoid behavior doesn't stay on script. Kim Jong Un's behavior smacks of megalomaniacal desperation. Megalomania is a form of paranoia. Its psychological manifestations include delusions of grandeur and obsession with the exercise of power.
Fear me, Paranoid Kim instructs Planet Earth. I already threaten Seoul and Tokyo. Soon I will possess missiles with nuclear warheads that can destroy North American cities.
Kim's verified impulsivity dramatically increases the risk that one day North Korea will cross the edge and ignite a nuclear war.
This is not an irrational fear, it is a sobering realization. This week, a U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile battery deployed to South Korea. It improves South Korea's defense against northern missiles but doesn't defend against Kim's impulsivity.
So America, Japan and South Korea are discussing offensive strikes to eliminate the source of the problem.
What is China doing? Good question. China opposes THAAD in South Korea. Beijing needs to end its opposition to the defensive system. Following the March 6 missile volley, China urged everyone to "exercise restraint" so regional tensions didn't intensify. It's time for Beijing to help permanently restrain Paranoid Kim.