The latest strut and show of force on the Korean Peninsula again shows that the pugnacious, dangerous leader of the DPRK (North Korea), Kim Jong-un, is holding the cards over his counterpart, US President Donald Trump.
The intercontinental ballistic missile test by Pyongyang last Tuesday of the Hwasong-14 — one that was, on this occasion, successful — was the outcome of insecurity and fears that have been the hallmark of the regime for decades.
In and of itself, that is understandable: the peninsula is technically at war, having not formally normalised peace after hostilities concluded in 1953. Given that very fact, and the most heavily militarised border on the planet, military initiatives to bolster North Korean security have been inevitable.
The DPRK's options in terms of defending itself against the might of the US and its allies were always limited, leaving the way open for an assortment of pantomimes. The arsenal of the threat became normal: that, for instance, of incinerating Seoul in a sea of fire, the possibility that Tokyo or Alaska might be targets.
So far, the show seems to be moving beyond the next line, the next boundary of what is deemed acceptable. But that is largely because Trump deemed it impossible that Pyongyang would have a viable ICBM option that could reach the United States.
From the start, the stance on negotiations has been intentionally frozen. The placement of the unacceptable objective is a constant feature of dealing with the DPRK. Central to this is the effort to prevent any attempt on its part to acquire a viable nuclear deterrent.
The refusal by the United States to consider a peace and security solution that involves denuclearisation only after the formal signing of a peace-treaty; the open acknowledgment that Washington will not engage in regime change, has assisted this dilemma. This is a regime that exists on smoke signals of reassurance that never arrive.
The entire matter of capability and options remains a matter of conjecture. The illusion is fundamental, and that is part of the show in the game of deterrence. As the announcement on North Korean state television went with inevitable hyperbole, North Korea had become 'a full-fledged nuclear power' that had acquired 'the most powerful inter-continental ballistic rocket capable of hitting any part of the world.'
"Kim Jong-un's conduct behind a weapons program that will form a credible deterrent has been logical, effectively making the response from his enemies irrational."
A dangerous error here, and one that propels further risk, is the assumption that Kim Jong-un is a lunatic who needs to be treated as unhinged. True, he may well be dangerous, but his conduct behind a weapons program that will form a credible deterrent has been logical, effectively making the response from his enemies irrational. This very fact assumes that a crazed supreme leader is beyond the realm of diplomacy and must therefore be restrained, and even removed.
Trump's own reaction seemed uncertain, frustrated. In Warsaw, he suggested 'severe things' needed to be done against the regime; the DPRK was 'behaving in a very, very dangerous manner'. China was also singled out, again under the mistaken assumption it can bully Pyongyang into compliance. 'So much for China working with us — but we had to give it a try.'
The options open to the Trump administration, short of what have been mistakenly deemed unthinkable negotiations, are virtually non-existent. A lethal, pre-emptive strike against both nuclear arsenal and the DPRK leadership is untenable given the losses that would take place at the end of 8000 rocket launchers and artillery pieces.
Given that half the population of South Korea lives within 50 miles of the border, a murderous calculus comes into play. It was a point that played into calculations in 1994, when the Clinton administration pondered a strike on the Yongbyon reactor. 'We reckoned,' recalled Assistant Secretary of Defence for International Security Ashton Carter, 'there would be many, many tens of thousands of deaths: American, South Korean, North Korean, combatant, non-combatant.'
In 2012, Roger Cavazos for the Nautilus Institute for Security and Stability suggested the infliction of 'three thousand casualties in the first few minutes' that would diminish once the element of surprise was lost. Speculatively, he suggested that if North Korean forces targeted Seoul, 'instead of primarily aiming at military targets, there would likely be around 30,000 casualties in a short amount of time'. But who wants to try?
The North Korean supreme leader, despite a string of failed weapons tests, is sitting well. As Yun Sun of the Stimson Centre suggests, 'The ICBM test removed the false hope that we might be able to stop North Korean nuclear provocations with either sanctions or the use of military provocations.' The US, and South Korea, may well be forced back to the negotiation table.
Dr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.