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Just How Dangerous Is North Korea?

08/04/2013 13:56 BST | Updated 07/06/2013 10:12 BST

Scaremongering by definition tends to exaggerate and mislead. Yet it works. Ten years ago, they invaded Iraq telling us that its wicked ruler - a certain Saddam Hussein who was once on very friendly terms with the U.S. - was hiding weapons of mass destruction. By deploying weapons of mind distraction, the U.S. and its allies are able to convince the public opinion of pretty much everything so that the slaughter of innocent civilians will appear to be collateral damage.

The abovementioned happened in Korea (back in the 1950s), then Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan; yet it also happens to be the case that America came out defeated from all of these wars (Afghanistan is still waiting). Nevertheless, they refuse to give up; they had a go in Libya, are trying their best to make Syria a place ravaged by sectarian violence by supporting Muslim fundamentalists and now... The perfidious kingdom of North Korea wants to attack them.

Let's now try and get behind the sensationalism of recent newspaper headlines, for clarity's sake if anything. Caught in a semi-rational frenzy, newsstands around the world are over-brimming with alarmist headlines. It is interesting to notice how the panic generated evokes a geopolitical map whose borders and sovereignty are rather "fanciful," to say the least.

First off, by reading the news one would be excused for thinking that North Korea is aiming its missiles straight at the White House in Washington. After all that's what they are saying, isn't it? North Korea threatens to attack the U.S. Now, everyone with the faintest geographical notion of space knows that the two countries sit rather distantly from each other and no war has ever been conducted from such a distance.

Nevertheless, let's try to read between these (head)lines. Of course what they really mean when writing "North Korea About to Nuke U.S.," is that the derelict nation led by the young Kim Jong-un is pretending to have the military means to attack U.S. bases in South Korea and supposedly face up to the mess that would ensue from such chaotic move.

That the delusional grandeur which has always characterized North Korean leaders is capable of such things is not to be excluded, but what exactly are those American military bases doing there? Wouldn't Washington be slightly nervous about having North Korean military troops stationed in Mexico? One is prone to suspect that yes, they would.

Judging from the position that both the Russian and Chinese diplomacies have adopted, inviting the North Korean leadership to moderate its tone and threats, Pyongyang seems to be acting on its very own mercurial terms. The situation is obviously thorny and potentially dangerous. The danger though does not stem from the military threat that Pyongyang might pose (the realistic might of the North Korean army is in fact very close to what Andy Borowitz ironically wrote in the New Yorker). The real danger lies in the destabilizing domino effect that a military conflict in that area could trigger.

The situation in the Asia-Pacific has been quite tense as of late. On the one side, North Korea is an historical ally of China; yet on the other hand, given the tactless vagaries the hermit nation specialises in, it may also turn into a liability. The asset North Korea represents to China is chiefly strategic: A buffer state warding off any American hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. But then again who wants to engage in an armed conflict against the U.S. on China's doorstep? Only Kim Jong-un - as far as we know, that is.

Coincidentally enough, only the U.S. could benefit from a war in that area. As Bruce Cumings noted in an article for The Nation, "The truth is that Pyongyang ought to be paid by Pentagon hard-liners and military contractors for its provocations; the North Koreans are the perfect stalking horse for America's stealth containment of China - and for keeping military spending high."

Perhaps Kim Jong-un is testing his newly elected southern counterpart, Park Geun-hye, both in terms of her intentions and tolerance. Or maybe he is willing to see how far in his support the Chinese government is willing to go and, conversely, how far provocations aimed at the Obama administration can stretch. One thing is certain though, if an armed conflict were to originate from Pyongyang's aggressive rhetoric, the only sure loser would be the North Korean regime itself.

Adding insult to injury, the U.S. might end up being the only party benefitting from Kim Jong-un's heated posturing. If in fact the North Korean regime was to collapse, which in case of an armed conflict would be a likely outcome, Washington would achieve an important and not too casual victory. Bruce Cumings again, in the same article for The Nation, reminds us where in fact the historical origins of this atomic animosity lie:

"Ever since, nuclear weapons have been part of our war plans against the North; they were not used during the Korean War only because the U.S. Air Force was able to raze every city in the North with conventional incendiaries. Hardly any Americans know about this, but every North Korean does; no wonder they have built some 15,000 underground facilities related to their national security. However provocative the North appears, we are reaping the whirlwind of our past nuclear bullying."

This article has previously appeared on China.org.cn