On February 12, 2013, North Korea announced to the world that it had conducted an underground nuclear test, its third in seven years. Had this announcement come from any other nation, it would no doubt have been accepted at face value. But North Korea is not any other nation. "As is usual with tests by the secretive North," the New York Times noted at the time, "it was not even clear if the underground test was nuclear, rather than conventional bomb blasts meant to mimic an underground nuclear test." Indeed, two days after the test, no trace of radiation had been discovered by North Korea's neighbors, South Korea, China, and Japan. The lack of such traces does not prove that the North Korean test was a hoax, but the fact that we cannot be absolutely certain whether it was a hoax indicates just how little we really know about North Korea and its new leader, Kim Jong-un, and how difficult it is for foreign observers to assess what is merely bluff and what is a real and genuine threat.
Or take North Korea's recent astonishing threat of pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the United States. Does this mean we should all be busily building bomb shelters — at least those of us who live in Hawaii or along the Pacific Coast — or was it simply to be dismissed as the temper tantrum of a spoiled brat?
Despite North Korea's steady escalation of furious rhetoric in the last month, and despite its barring South Korean workers from the Kaesong industrial complex, there are many intelligent observers in the United States who remain convinced that we should not take Kim's threats very seriously. After all, Kim is young, inexperienced, and only recently came to power, after the death of his father. What could be more natural than that young Kim would feel the need to assert his own authority, if not to impress the world with his stature, then at least to impress the North Korean military establishment, whose support he clearly needs? And what better way to do this than to threaten South Korea and the United States, even if we all know (wink-wink, nudge-nudge) that such threats are really quite meaningless? In short, according to this view, Kim is "only bluffing" and his threats are nothing to lose any sleep over.
But before we conclude that Kim is only bluffing, it would be helpful to more carefully consider what exactly we mean when we say someone is only bluffing. In particular, we need to examine the tacit assumption that if someone is only bluffing, then we do not have to worry about him, since he really has no intention of carrying out his threats. While this may sometimes be true, it is not always.
Obviously there are cases in which this assumption holds true. From our earliest childhood we were all made familiar with the phenomenon known as the idle threat, no doubt because that is the period of our lives when we and our peers were most given to making such threats. Children routinely boast that they will do unimaginably terrible things to those who have crossed them. A boy might threaten to rip a playmate's head off with his bare hands and feed the body, piece by piece, to crocodiles. By their very nature, however, no one takes these idle threats seriously. Heads are not so easily ripped off, nor are crocodiles so easily found, as children eventually learn. Yet some adults manage to go through life persisting in making absurd threats that are mere empty bombast, like the man who decides to revenge himself for bad service at a Dairy Queen by vowing to bring down Warren Buffett's financial empire. Such self-aggrandizing rodomontade, far from arousing our respect, much less our fear and awe, is usually dismissed as a sign of immaturity or looked upon as evidence that those who indulge in such blustering twaddle must be living in a fantasy world — which is precisely how many observers have treated the threats from North Korea's new leader.
To some extent, these observers have a point. For example, when North Korea threatens a direct nuclear strike on the United States, the expert consensus is that the North Koreans are making a threat that they are in no position to carry out, since it is generally believed that they lack the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead at that distance. To bluff effectively, however, everyone must believe that you can actually carry out your threat. If I threaten to make lightning strike you dead, my threat will have no deterrent effect, since you are perfectly aware that I lack the power to call down thunderbolts. I can only use this as a bluff if you are a big enough ninny to actually believe I have such power. If you aren't such a ninny, then my bluff is utterly pointless. You will simply laugh at it and go your own way. But you may also have the same response if I make a threat that I am physically capable of carrying out, but which you are firmly convinced I am not really willing to carry out.
This last point has important consequences. It is an illusion to think that we can effectively threaten others simply because we are prepared to issue threats at them, and this is true even when we actually have the physical capacity to make good on our threats. It is still always possible that the party we wish to influence by our threats will simply refuse to take them seriously. Parents often discover this truth when they threaten to punish their children by doing things that the children are perfectly aware their parents cannot really bring themselves to do. If the children have repeatedly heard these threats and have repeatedly watched as their parents fail to follow through on them, they begin to suspect that their parents are indeed "only bluffing." The parents are never really going to take an axe to their kids' Xbox, nor ground them for the rest of their lives. Therefore, why pay any attention to such idle threats?
It may well be that Kim, not being a parent, has yet to discover that one of the dangers of extravagant over-threatening is the loss of credibility of the person whose threats are simply too terrible to be taken seriously. He might also not have discovered the risks of making the same threats over and over without ever carrying any of them out: This is the threat of becoming a laughingstock. Paradoxically, the more furious Kim's rhetoric gets, the more he risks being seen merely as a bluffing blowhard, so long, of course, as he does not cross the fatal line into overt actions that would necessitate a military response against his nation. Yet this very fact, far from soothing our anxieties over North Korea, should be reason for concern. For the more we dismiss Kim's rhetoric with an indifferent shrug, the more we dare him to do something that would amply demonstrate that he is a man who must be taken seriously. The more widespread our agreement that he is only bluffing, the more we force him into a corner — though admittedly it is a corner he has already painted himself into by his own rash threats.
Perhaps the best way of understanding Kim's psychology, however, is to recognize that he is not bluffing in our sense of the word, largely derived from the very Western game of poker. He is more like the little boy who cried wolf in Aesop's fable. The boy was not really bluffing; he was making up a threat that would alarm the adults and send them into an uproar. So too Kim is making up threats to alarm the United States. We don't know the motive of the little boy who cried wolf, except perhaps that it was to create mischief, but let us suppose that the little boy had a more dignified motive. He wanted for adults to take him seriously and to listen to what he said, instead of dismissing him as only a child. What better way than by yelling wolf? And this is perhaps the best light in which we can understand Kim's behavior, namely as a leader who demands that he and his nation be regarded as a power to be reckoned with and, above all, to be taken seriously. If he was only bluffing, then we might dismiss him without a care. But if he is like the boy who cried wolf, then we have much to worry about. For at some point the only way that the boy who cries wolf can be taken seriously is to produce a wolf, a fact that must eventually dawn on Kim, who has plenty of wolves at his beck and call — perhaps a half dozen of them nuclear.
Oddly enough, perhaps our best policy is to humor Kim, not by appeasing him, but simply by going through the motions of taking him seriously, which in fact is what the Obama administration appears to be doing when they respond to North Korea's rhetoric by our own display of military might. Those who urge the United States to take no provocative action against North Korea are justified in their concern that the present crisis might lead to a second Korean War — a war that is in no one's interest, and certainly not that of the United States. But we must do what we can to convince Kim that we are taking his threats seriously, which obviously requires an American show of force. And we must also take North Korea seriously because it is a nuclear power — and all nuclear powers have to be humored, as our humoring of nuclear Pakistan clearly demonstrates. With nuclear proliferation, and much else, U.S. foreign policy must tolerate things that we are unwilling to go to war to change. Furthermore, even if North Korea's nuclear program was a gigantic hoax — something few suppose — it is still a nation whose conventional military power alone should be enough to gain our respect, even if the level of that respect is a few notches below the healthy respect we feel toward rattlesnakes. By furiously rattling his tail, the rattlesnake may be only bluffing, but what sane man would think of calling that bluff? They say the snake is more afraid of us than we are of him — but isn't that exactly what we have to worry about?