Like the proverbial spoiled child, North Korea has taken to having regular tantrums when it seems that the rest of the world is not paying enough attention. Following the ‘bad boy’ syndrome that negative attention is better than being entirely ignored, quite recently, we have seen a few strange and bold moves by North Korea in yet another attempt to provoke.

First, American scientists observed, or were shown (it is not clear) a previously unknown North Korean facility which had ‘thousands’ of centrifuges spinning away – capability to produce a whole nuclear arsenal. More recently even, North Korea attacked a small island occupied by South Korea, which the Madman Dictator claims, when not watching John Wayne in his favorite western movies. Several people, both military and civilian, died.

Earlier, North Korea repeatedly tested missiles and nukes, including a missile fly-over of Japan, and actually sank a South Korean vessel. Clearly, the days of occasional skirmishes across the DMZ are over and troubling days in that part of the world have begun anew. For anybody unfamiliar with the Korean War, which never officially ended, David Halberstam’s last book, The Coldest Winter, possibly his best of all, tells the whole brutal story in great, and moving, detail.

So, what is happening with the Hermit Kingdom and their diminutive Madman Leader? That is exactly the question which has caused the US Navy to begin re-positioning at least one aircraft carrier to waters local to the Korean Penninsula, just in case.

Now, with two lengthy and expensive wars already on our docket, the US does not need a third war with North Korea, and all the nuclear threats to the region that implies. We also do not need North Korea going into the nuclear franchise business like Dr. A.Q. Kahn did in Pakistan. Also, it is necessary to keep our treaty partner, South Korea on ice, sufficiently cool headed, even though Seoul is so terribly close and vulnerable to the border regions if North Korean were to suddenly attack.

North Korea’s current leader, Kim Jong Il is quite ill; in fact, there are indications that an accelerated transfer of power is in process to his clueless appearing son, a newly minted ‘four star’ general in the Hermit Kingdom’s massive armed forces (when the Son & Apparent Heir seems qualified perhaps for flipping burgers, if North Korea only had a local Mickey D’s). This will be only the third transfer of leadership in this hellacious totalitarian country’s history, and inquiring minds and eyes are firmly focused on whether the latest tantrums are simply the Son & Heir Apparent’s way of saying hello to the world community, primarily to show how tough he really is and that, even though power is passing, North Korea will continue, grimly, with business as usual.

The big wild card in the region is, of course, China, and what it’s reaction will be. As Halberstam’s book vividly tells, China, then under Mao’s grasp, turned the tables on the entire Korean War when MacArthur and his armies, after the spectacular (and incredibly risky) Inchon landing, pushed all the way up through North Korea and almost to the Chinese border. This happened amid cries from some in the US to go all the way into China to unseat Mao and the newly communist China, all of which came to an abrupt end when President Truman informed MacArthur that his services there were no longer needed. Oh yes, and the Chinese armies poured, by the hundreds of thousands, into North Korea, to push the UN forces (read: mostly US forces) back to what has been the DMZ for nearly 60 years now, a grim belt slung across the waist of the Korean Peninsula.

China could and should take the Son & Heir Apparent into a private meeting and explain that the complexities of 21stC Asia are a good deal harder to grasp than they were back in the Korean War years immediately following WWII, and to lighten up, back down, and re-start talks which could produce agreements resulting in feeding North Korea’s population while lessening the nuclear threat posed by a Madman with his finger on the Red Button, all too ready to sell nukes to the nastiest of our enemies.
Or, China could simply sit back and watch the show.

The stakes are ridiculously high and the risks equally so in that hugely populated Asian theater. We can hope that the burgeoning capitalism, which has made so many Chinese so rich, will now also make them reasonable about this nagging problem on their border and acutely aware that they cannot keep backing the Madmen who happen to rule North Korea. Or not.

This bears very close watching indeed . . . .