Who's afraid of Kim Jong-un?

No, what’s causing many officials and observers to gulp a bit is all that, plus the fact that Kim Jong-un—about 29 and in power for barely a year—is still an unknown quantity. His father, Kim Jong-il, was 52 when he succeeded his father; he’d spent a quarter-century preparing for the ascension in several senior party positions. Kim Jong-un had no political or military experience before taking putative control of the army, the party, and the nation. Kim Jong-il learned the subtleties of managing power, domestically and internationally, from a wily master; scholars and diplomats who study the regime saw continuity in the two leaders’ patterns; Bill Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, held lengthy negotiations with him in 2000 about a possible missile ban, and, according to her aides, who sat in the same room, he had a clear command of the issues. By contrast, Kim Jong-un had little time to learn anything; his behavior is at best hard to read, and at times bewildering. …

This is the question that officials and analysts are asking: Does Kim Jong-un know how to play his family’s game? It’s always been an odious game, but in the old days, when the father and grandfather were around, it would end with peace, at least for a while, if the west played along. American diplomats learned how to play the game, though testily, during the presidencies of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton; some of them finally got the hang of it (though way too late) in the last two years of George W. Bush. But now, the rules of the game, even the contours of the game board, are unclear. Does Kim Jong-un believe his ridiculous rhetoric? Or is he playing it as a tactic, like his elders did, though quite a lot more bunglingly? In either case, he seems to be overplaying his hand. He seems to be miscalculating. (Could he really have believed that engaging with Dennis Rodman might endear him to America’s No. 1 basketball fan? He might have!) And miscalculations, as much history tells us, can lead to war.

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