The best policy towards Kim Jong-un may be to humor him
Perhaps the best way of understanding Kim’s psychology, however, is to recognize that he is not bluffing in our sense of the word, largely derived from the very Western game of poker. He is more like the little boy who cried wolf in Aesop’s fable. The boy was not really bluffing; he was making up a threat that would alarm the adults and send them into an uproar. So too Kim is making up threats to alarm the United States. We don’t know the motive of the little boy who cried wolf, except perhaps that it was to create mischief, but let us suppose that the little boy had a more dignified motive. He wanted for adults to take him seriously and to listen to what he said, instead of dismissing him as only a child. What better way than by yelling wolf? And this is perhaps the best light in which we can understand Kim’s behavior, namely as a leader who demands that he and his nation be regarded as a power to be reckoned with and, above all, to be taken seriously. If he was only bluffing, then we might dismiss him without a care. But if he is like the boy who cried wolf, then we have much to worry about. For at some point the only way that the boy who cries wolf can be taken seriously is to produce a wolf, a fact that must eventually dawn on Kim, who has plenty of wolves at his beck and call — perhaps a half dozen of them nuclear.
Oddly enough, perhaps our best policy is to humor Kim, not by appeasing him, but simply by going through the motions of taking him seriously, which in fact is what the Obama administration appears to be doing when they respond to North Korea’s rhetoric by our own display of military might. Those who urge the United States to take no provocative action against North Korea are justified in their concern that the present crisis might lead to a second Korean War — a war that is in no one’s interest, and certainly not that of the United States. But we must do what we can to convince Kim that we are taking his threats seriously, which obviously requires an American show of force. And we must also take North Korea seriously because it is a nuclear power — and all nuclear powers have to be humored, as our humoring of nuclear Pakistan clearly demonstrates. With nuclear proliferation, and much else, U.S. foreign policy must tolerate things that we are unwilling to go to war to change. Furthermore, even if North Korea’s nuclear program was a gigantic hoax — something few suppose — it is still a nation whose conventional military power alone should be enough to gain our respect, even if the level of that respect is a few notches below the healthy respect we feel toward rattlesnakes. By furiously rattling his tail, the rattlesnake may be only bluffing, but what sane man would think of calling that bluff? They say the snake is more afraid of us than we are of him — but isn’t that exactly what we have to worry about?