The failed test of an intermediate-range ballistic missile on North Korea's so-called "Day of the Sun" (April 15, the birthday of Kim Il-sung) only succeeded in winning rebukes from China—the DPRK regime's only, increasingly embarassed ally. China's official Xinhua news agency said that the test "marks the latest in a string of saber-rattling that, if unchecked, will lead the country to nowhere… Nuclear weapons will not make Pyongyang safer. On the contrary, its costly military endeavors will keep on suffocating its economy."
The US-based 38 North website, a watchdog on North Korea, reports new activity at the country's Punggye-ri nuclear site based on satellite imagery and warns that the possibility of a fifth nuclear test "could not be ruled out." It also reports of activity at the Yongbyon nuclear research center that may indicate weapons-grade plutonium reprocessing.
The fourth nuclear test was in January, when the regime supposedly exploded an H-bomb. (Emphasis on the "supposedly.") This was followed by a long-range rocket launch in February (ostensibly to deliver a satellite into orbit) and a medium-range missile test-launch in March. These led to new UN sanctions. North Korea's Defense Commission in turn responded to the new sanctions by threatening a "pre-emptive nuclear strike of justice" against the US and South Korea. The regime also released another creepy propaganda video depicting a nuclear strike on Washington DC. (Last time it was Manhattan.) The regime's Taepodong-2 missile, its most powerful, can theoretically reach the US. But again—emphasis on the "theoretically." (Reuters, NYT, BBC News, VOA, CNN)
Despite media hype in the West (which is the intended effect), these are not the actions of a stable regime that poses a credible military threat. Rather, they reveal more than a whiff of desperation. They point to a regime trying to keep its own populace distracted with such fireworks, and to spook the international community into providing food aid. That the latter aim has now proved counter-productive puts more pressure on the former. It used to seem like there was a certain method to the madness in North Korea. It appears less like that all the time, and more and more as if the regime is behaving like a trapped animal—probably in deadlier fear of its own people than the outside world.
Indeed, North Korean state media warned after the new sanctions hit in last month that the country should prepare for a new "arduous march"—official designation for the famine that killed as many as 3.5 million people in the 1990s. Pyongyang has requested 440,000 tons of food aid from overseas to feed its people so far this year. (The Telegraph, March 30)
The real threat in North Korea is not that it could deliver a nuke to California, or even Japan. The real threat is catastrophic regime collapse and a humanitarian crisis of overwhelming proportions. We are reminded of reports from 2011 (that year of worldwide uprisings) of scattered protests over privation in impoverished areas of the DPRK. We wonder how many more such protests there have been since then, with the word simply failing to get out…