North Korea’s Saber Rattling: Is the Bark Worse Than the Bite?

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KCNA / Xinhua / Sipa

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in a photo released by the country's state-run news agency KCNA on March 29, 2013

The world may finally be taking North Korean threats seriously. On March 28, after the U.S. announced that two nuclear-capable stealth bombers flew from Missouri to South Korea as part of a major military exercise — which TIME’s Mark Thompson called “unusual” and Foreign Policy estimated might have cost $5.5 million — news reports ran rampant that Kim Jong Un and his military were plotting for their missiles to hit military bases in South Korea and U.S.-owned ones in the Pacific Ocean.

Speculation about North Korea’s apparent boost in military movements continued early Friday morning, when a photo from the young despot’s war room was released, showing him seated at a large wooden table and flanked by four senior generals in traditional military attire, who are watching him read through the supposed plans. A chart behind him is apparently marked “U.S. Mainland Strike Plan” with missile trajectories that state-controlled media claim end in Hawaii; Los Angeles; Washington, D.C.; and Austin. An accompanying image appears to show him signing an order for the rockets to be on standby. A Foreign Ministry statement warned of North Korea’s “right to a preemptive nuclear attack to destroy the strongholds of the aggressors.”

“He finally signed the plan on technical preparations of strategic rockets, ordering them to be on standby to fire so that they may strike any time the U.S. mainland, its military bases in the operational theaters in the Pacific, including Hawaii and Guam, and those in South Korea,” reported the Korean Central News Agency, the secretive nation’s mouthpiece. Later in the day, tens of thousands of people converged in Pyongyang’s main square to support their leader, with some holding placards that read “Let’s Crush the Puppet Traitor Group” and “Let’s Rip the Puppet Traitors to Death!”

In response to the increased military movement, an American official was quoted as saying the isolated nation was “not a paper tiger” and that its “provocative behavior” should not be dismissed as “pure bluster.” The source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, continued: “What’s not clear right now is how much risk Kim Jong Un is willing to run to show the world and domestic elites that he’s a tough guy.” But even despite the latest harmful threats, the official offered this opinion on the young Kim: “His inexperience is certain — his wisdom is still very much in question.”

But many of North Korea’s threats have proved hollow and — more often than not — comical. For much of the past half century, its proverbial bark has been much worse than its bite. Over the past decade or so, Pyongyang’s taunts have been met with criticism, laughs, sanctions and silence.

In March 2001, it threatened “thousandfold revenge” on the U.S. for a “black-hearted intention” to scuttle its peace dialogue with the South. Eight years later in July 2009, after then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the North was like a child seeking attention from a parent, its leadership shot back with this one-liner: “Her words suggest that she is by no means intelligent.” (A Foreign Ministry statement went on to brand her a “funny lady” who looks like “a pensioner going shopping.”)

A year later, Pyongyang promised a “retaliatory sacred war” after being blamed for the sinking of a South Korean ship, which killed 46 sailors. In April 2012, the North claimed it would reduce Seoul “to ashes” as tensions between the two governments had escalated again. And during a debate in February at the U.N. Conference on Disarmament, a North Korean diplomat cajoled Seoul: “A newborn puppy knows no fear of a tiger. South Korea’s erratic behavior would only herald its final destruction.” That final pronouncement is one that Kim and his cohort might want to heed themselves.