Jeffrey Lewis

The Map of Death

The Map of Death

It is hard to say when the disparagement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program started, but I like June 2000 as my cultural ground zero. That month, the venerable news magazine the Economist put a picture of a Kim Jong Il on its cover with the headline "Greetings, Earthlings."

After that, Kim Jong Il became funny. There were internet memes ("Kim Jong Il looking at things"), T-shirts courtesy of The Onion, and, oh yes, that song-and-dance number in Team America: World Police: "I’m So Ronery."

Even academics got into the act. Bruce Cummings famously opened a chapter in North Korea: Another Country by asking:

What can he possibly be thinking, standing there in his pear-shaped polyester pantsuit, pointy-toed elevator shoes, oversize sunglasses of malevolent tint, an arrogant curl to his feminine lip, an immodest pot-belly, a perpetual bad-hair day? He is thinking: get me out of here.

The North Koreans deserve some of this. North Korea’s propaganda is so vitriolic that it can be hard to take seriously, a point that we Westerners make to North Koreans in many Track II meetings. When the Colorado legislature passed a harmless resolution urging North Korea to return the U.S.S. Pueblo, the U.S. ship seized in 1968, the North Koreans sent the sponsor of the bill a postcard inviting him to come and get it. (What’s Korean for molon labe?)

The tendency to see North Korea as vaguely ridiculous has helped make the country’s nuclear weapons program seem silly, too.

Which brings us to Kim Jong Un, son and successor to Kim Jong Il, and his bizarre wall map of nuclear death and destruction.

The initial response has been mirth. Wits in the Southwest, noting that one of the targets appears to be near Austin, Texas, immediately started a twitter hashtag: #whyaustin, suggesting that maybe Kim is irritated about missing Prince perform at SXSW or with his barbecue options in Pyongyang (although bulgogi is awfully tasty). Texas Governor Rick Perry even took the opportunity to shill for Austin, arguing that North Korea targeted the city because of its excellent business climate. "The individuals in North Korea understand that Austin, Texas, is a very important city in North America, as do corporate CEOs and others who are moving here in record numbers," he said. You can’t make this stuff up.

Maybe, though, it is time to take all this just a bit more seriously. At the very least, when another country is making an overt threat to use nuclear weapons against specific places, it might be worth asking WTF?

So, WTF?

The easiest place to start is with the Map of Death.

One target is clear: Washington, DC. North Korean officials have talked about striking Washington on any number of occasions, so this does not surprise.

The other clear target is obviously Hawaii. The North Koreans spelled this out in their statement, and Hawaii is home to U.S. Pacific Command. Mele Kalikimaka.

Now, the other two targets are less clear. One is definitely in Southern California. My best guess is San Diego, which is the principal homeport for Pacific Fleet. There is a chance, I suppose, that Vandenberg Air Force Base is the target.

The last target — initially thought by many to be Austin — is the hardest one to make out. One of Kim’s generals and his hat — you just don’t see a man in a kepi anymore! — gets in the way. If the target is in Texas, one intriguing possibility is not Austin, but nearby San Antonio, sometimes called Cyber City, USA and home to Lackland Air Force Base and Air Force Cyber Command. The North Koreans have complained a lot lately about cyberattacks. It may seem odd, but North Korea is very worried about maintaining command and control of its nuclear forces.

The line seems a little far north for San Antonio, raising the possibility that the target lies behind the general’s silly hat — possibly Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, LA, home of Air Force Global Strike Command.

If one has but four targets to select, these four reflect a certain logic. North Korea is targeting both the national and theater leadership in Washington and Hawaii, as well as major U.S. military installations for naval operations (San Diego) and either long-range bomber missions (if it is Barksdale) or cyberattacks (if it is Lackland).

The message is not terribly subtle, but then again we are talking about North Korean propaganda. The identification of specific U.S. targets is the most recent in a string of North Korean statements over the past year about targeting the United States, starting with the announcement that North Korea had established a "Strategic Rocket Forces Command." Since then, the North Koreans have spoken repeatedly about developing the ability to strike the United States.

North Korea does not, at the moment, have a demonstrated capability to put a nuclear weapon on the U.S. homeland. Dan Pinkston noted that, in the Korean phrase for "U.S. Mainland Strike Plan," the word "plan" carries an aspirational quality. I believe North Korea is moving toward an operational nuclear capability, but the details are obscure. North Korea may be deploying the road-mobile KN-08 missile that it paraded through Kim Il Sung square last spring, or may be sitting on either a three-stage Unha missile for military purposes or something even bigger. I am not persuaded that North Korea must flight-test an ICBM before it deploys one, but not doing flight testing does undermine the credibility of the missile threat. It’s not time to panic just yet.

But it is important to take these threats seriously, if only to discern the signal in the cacophony of threats and bluster. The current bellicosity is not normal. Although North Korea has long traded in insults and hyperbole, this seems different to me. The threats and assertions that have followed the collapse of the Leap Day Deal in early 2012 have been very personal. While we have largely focused on the U.S.-DPRK dynamic, the relationship between North and South Korea is equally important. The two countries have spent the past year exchanging threats to kill each other’s leadership, something that is not a purely idle threat.

Last spring, South Korea announced it was developing new ballistic and cruise missiles, noting that the latter could "fly through Kim Jong Un’s window." The North Koreans took that statement very, very badly. They interpreted it as a very deliberate threat to decapitate the North Korean leadership and responded with a very vitriolic campaign depicting Lee Myung Bak as a dead rat. Clearly, the South Koreans had found a sensitive spot, which they pushed again a few weeks ago when they released more footage of ballist
ic and cruise missiles, noting again that window-sized targets were in play. The North Koreans have issued a series of statements that make very clear how serious they take threats to decapitate the North Korean government.

The current situation, then, strikes me as particularly dangerous. The North Koreans have grown used to provoking the South Koreans with relative impunity. 2010 was a very rough year, with the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. The South Koreans are clearly tired of taking a beating at the hands of the North Koreans, although I worry that all this talk of precision strikes is an escapist fantasy. North Korea could easily push South Korea too far, leading the South Koreans to dramatically escalate the situation in a way that would be dangerous and unpredictable. Taking a shot at Kim Jong Un and the rest of the leadership might sound like a good idea over coffee and donuts during a simulation — but South Korea better not miss in real life.

I suspect that North Korea’s sudden focus on targeting the United States reflects this. It serves as a warning that the United States has a stake in restraining South Korea. As the North and South exchange increasingly bellicose threats about targeting the other’s leadership, the South Koreans have given every indication they might do something unpredictable — apparently in the hope of deterring another provocation. Pyongyang may well believe that the United States could constrain South Korea’s response. If so, that message isn’t getting through. The United States and South Korea have discussed expanding the latitude of South Korean units to respond to local provocations, something I like to think of as the threat that leaves everything to chance. (That’s a Schelling joke, by the way.)

The North Koreans, too, have signaled that they have delegated the "final authority" to retaliate against a provocation. Both sides are acting like teenagers in a game of chicken, claiming to have thrown the steering wheels out of their cars.

How we get through this depends in no small part on two relatively inexperienced leaders.

South Korea has a new president, Madam Park Geun-hye, who is understandably reluctant to set a precedent of taking North Korea’s abuse. (The first draft did not say "abuse.") The fact that her mother was killed in a 1974 North Korean assassination attempt on her father adds an interesting complication to the situation.

Another complication is that the North Koreans, for their part, have the sort of views about a woman in authority that would make Archie Bunker uncomfortable. North Korea has unleashed a barrage of sexist propaganda, starting with references to a "venomous swish of a skirt." (They are kind of pigs.) That brings us to our other new leader: Kim Jong Un, whom the vice chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff derisively called a "young lad." Whether a young and untested North Korean leader might be backed into stupid decisions out of some sexist worry about being pushed around by a South Korean woman is an unpleasant possibility. (Maybe we can send Kim some Thatcher DVDs or a arrange a trip to the Falklands.)

All of this is to say that the situation is extremely volatile. And we sometimes forget that, for all our confidence in the stability of deterrence, the leaders making decisions in the middle of all this are human beings with their own faults and frailties.