North Korea’s Kim is making U.S. officials nervous


WASHINGTON — Obama administration officials who once hoped that North Korea’s young leader could prove to be a reformer are increasingly worried that he might blunder his way into a war.

Even as they publicly describe 30-year-old Kim Jong Un’s recent bellicose threats as bluster, administration officials have stepped up visible demonstrations of American military power. The aim, according to current and former U.S. officials, is to highlight for the North Koreans that their Stalinist regime might not survive a war on the Korean peninsula.

Kim “is clearly inexperienced, but what’s not clear is whether he has the smarts to know — or can learn — that it wouldn’t be wise to start a war,” said a senior Defense official, speaking anonymously to discuss military planning.


PHOTOS: Dennis Rodman visits Kim Jong Un

The actions mark a change of tactics by the administration. During President Obama’s first term, the White House played down North Korean threats and avoided visible reaction to provocations. This time, it has staged a series of military moves, highlighting them with public announcements.

The Pentagon on Thursday took the unprecedented step of announcing that it had dispatched two nuclear-capable B-2 stealth bombers to fly a round-trip mission from their base in Missouri and drop dummy bombs in South Korea. Also this month, the Pentagon sent nuclear-capable B-52 bombers over the peninsula and announced that it had bolstered missile defense forces in Alaska with 14 interceptors in response to North Korea’s threats of missile attacks.

Kim has continued to escalate his threats against the United States and South Korea, on Friday ordering his missile units to be prepared to strike both nations, according to the state-controlled news media. The Korean Central News Agency released a photo of Kim and his generals, with a map in the background that appeared to show the flight path of missiles from North Korea to Los Angeles and other American destinations.

The new, more confrontational U.S. approach has risks, however. With Kim believed to be eager to prove his strength, the U.S. strategy could provoke the kind of miscalculation that officials say they are trying to avoid.

In recent statements, North Korea has threatened to “break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and thus clearly show them what a real war is like.”

U.S. officials believe that North Korea is still years away from being able to strike the United States with a nuclear missile, except possibly parts of Alaska and remote territories. They see the threats by Kim as partly designed to consolidate his control of the regime he inherited when his father died in 2011.

But that hardly eliminates the risk of war. North Korea remains capable of threatening South Korea with a massive conventional attack. The South’s capital, Seoul, with a population of nearly 11 million people, lies well within range of North Korean artillery.

American officials fear that the North’s bellicose rhetoric, its severing of communication links and South Korea’s vows to retaliate against North Korean moves could lead to miscalculation and even violent clashes, with the potential for a full-scale war.

Beyond warning the North, the administration wants to reassure South Korea and Japan that the United States is committed to their protection so they don’t need to expand their own military capabilities. Tension in the region is already high, in part because of disputes between Japan and China over islands that both claim.

“The United States remains committed to safeguarding our allies in the region and our interests that are located there as well,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Friday.

The bomber missions were deliberately planned with South Korea’s concerns in mind, said a senior military officer involved in the discussions.

“This is very much a message to South Korea that you don’t need to get too excited; we’re with you,” the officer said.

The administration hopes too that its moves will communicate to China that if it wants to avoid further U.S. military involvement in its region, it needs to take stronger steps to restrain North Korea, the unruly neighbor it protects.

U.S. officials say they still believe that China, which provides food and energy to the North, is the key to restraining it. Officials say they hope to work out a stronger collaboration with Beijing, which has become alarmed by the North’s recent nuclear and missile tests, and has stepped up enforcement of United Nations sanctions. North Korea staged its most recent nuclear test during the Chinese New Year celebration, which angered Chinese officials.

Officials note that North Korea has a long history of threatening the United States and South Korea in hopes of gaining concessions and mobilizing its public to sacrifice for the state.

This time, U.S. and South Korean officials say, the North’s threat of nuclear attack could be intended as preparation for new tests of the country’s missiles. A senior administration official said it would follow the pattern for Pyongyang to make one more provocative move, such as a long-range missile test.

But new factors have injected more risk into the equation: Kim Jong Un is an inexperienced leader who wants to prove himself to a hard-line military. South Korea has a new, untested president, and China is in the midst of a government transition as well.

PHOTOS: Dennis Rodman visits Kim Jong Un

North Korea is angry over recent U.N. sanctions that aim to further restrict its limited international trade and banking. And with its nuclear and missile programs continuing to advance, it may believe it has more ability to back up its threats.

U.S. officials aren’t the only ones concerned that this time the threats could go too far. In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said he was increasingly worried that the situation could “get out of control — it will descend into the spiral of a vicious cycle.”

In an apparent attempt to warn others in the North Korean regime not to be drawn into a conflict by the miscalculations of a callow leader, U.S. military leaders repeatedly have warned of Kim’s youth and inexperience.

Speaking to reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel referred to Kim as “this new, young leader.”

Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke of him at a news conference this month at which officials announced the expansion of the U.S. missile defense system, saying: “We believe that this young lad ought to be deterred by that. And if he’s not, we’ll be ready.”