BEIJING — North Korea is sometimes mocked as the mouse that roared, one of the poorest countries in the world threatening two economic and military giants, the United States and South Korea.
But under Kim Jong Il and now his 30-year-old son, Kim Jong Un, North Korea has proved itself the master at playing a poor hand.
Indeed, it uses weakness to its advantage. Like a barefoot man who doesn't fear the man with shoes, North Korea behaves like it has nothing to lose.
South Korea has twice the population and 40 times the economic might of North Korea. The South has a highly sophisticated military and a strong U.S. alliance. But North Korea is also one of the most militarized nations on Earth, bristling with nuclear and conventional arms that could inflict horrific damage on its southern neighbor, albeit at a suicidal cost.
North Korea's bombastic propaganda machine need only issue a missive threatening to turn Seoul into a "sea of fire" and the South Korean stock market takes a beating.
"It is difficult to keep North Korea under control despite the fact that the U.S. and South Korea are superior in military force, because they know that we won't use force first," said Park Syung-je, a military analyst at the Asia Strategy Institute in Seoul.
South Koreans have largely grown inured to the constant threat, but some acknowledge an underlying fear.
"North Koreans are scary. They are full of spite," said Kim Sung-ya,
a well-dressed woman wearing bright lipstick and sunglasses who was strolling through a Seoul train station. "I'm afraid that they might fire something first."
On several occasions, most seriously in 1994, the U.S. contemplated a preemptive strike against the North Korean nuclear compound at Yongbyon, but quickly abandoned the idea. There is no doubt that if such a strike spun into a full-scale war, the United States could easily defeat North Korea — according to some estimates, in less than three days.
But victory would come at an unthinkable cost. Half of South Korea's 50 million people live within short-range striking distance of North Korea, and the thriving metropolis of Seoul is only 30 miles away. The North Korean capital, Pyongyang, is within 70 miles of the border. Both sides could expect horrific casualties.
North Korea does not have a workable nuclear weapon or intercontinental ballistic missile thus far, but it has the fifth-largest army in the world, more than
1.1 million soldiers under arms and 4.7 million on reserve, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Most of the North's force is pointed like a dagger at South Korea. According to the London-based institute, it has 8,000 artillery systems and 2,000 tanks at the demilitarized zone on the border.
A computer simulation done in 1994, when the Clinton administration was contemplating airstrikes to take out the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, projected that if North Korea went all-out in retaliation, as many as a million South Koreans could be killed, as well as thousands of American troops stationed near the DMZ, according to a former South Korean official.
U.S. military planners use the phrase the "tyranny of proximity" to describe the geographic situation.
If the United States and South Korea launched a quick, all-out blitz against North Korea, there would be heavy casualties on the North Korea side. In a slower, more cautious campaign against military targets, losses would be greater south of the border, according to Park.
"Ultimately, North Korea is bound to lose, but millions of people would die," Park said.
Another scary scenario: A conventional war could quickly turn nuclear. In a much-discussed article that recently ran on the Foreign Affairs magazine website, scholars Keir A. Lieber and Daryl G. Press said that Kim Jong Un, fearing the same fate as other defeated leaders, such as Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Moammar Kadafi, could be tempted to use a crude nuclear weapon, delivering it through a commando raid or some other unconventional means.
"Nuclear weapons are really the weapons of the weak," said Lieber, an associate professor at Georgetown University. "If North Korea is facing conventional defeat, which seems likely given the superior might of the combined forces, they might not see any other option for avoiding regime change."
North Korea also deploys the craziness card to its advantage. The colorful bombast of its infamous propaganda mouthpiece, the Korean Central News Agency (threatening to "break the waists of the crazy enemies, totally cut their windpipes and thus clearly show them what a real war is like") is designed not merely to intimidate but to convince the outside world that it is dealing with lunatics.
And of course, when dealing with lunatics — as with suicide bombers — the whole premise of deterrence breaks down.
The rhetoric has become especially fevered in recent months, during a cycle of escalation that began with North Korea launching a rocket in December and conducting its third underground nuclear test in February, predictably leading to international condemnation and stiffer sanctions, which in turn led to the stream of invective from Pyongyang.
The United States has responded militarily by shifting additional naval resources to the region and saying it will send a mobile missile defense system to Guam.
After North Korea announced this week that it was reactivating the plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon — long mothballed under an international agreement — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described the reclusive dictatorship as "a real and clear danger and threat."
As if to second that declaration, North Korea promptly said it was targeting the United States with "smaller, lighter and diversified" nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang likes to keep the atmosphere at a fever pitch for both international and domestic political purposes.
For decades, North Korea has kept its population in a state of military alert, using the threat of imminent imperialist invasion as an excuse for chronic food shortages and deprivation. The increased Pentagon deployment in the Pacific and the use of B-52 and stealth bombers in simulated raids in recent military exercises has been spun by North Korean propagandists into proof positive of what they've been warning about all along.
To longtime North Korea watchers, there is a numbing sense of deja vu with the current crisis.
"Their rhetoric is their rhetoric. I don't find it particularly shocking," said Joel Wit, a former State Department official. "We've been around this block a few times."
One of the big unknowns this time, however, is Kim Jong Un, in power only since December 2011. The fear is that the young, untested leader might actually believe his country's own inflated rhetoric about how powerful it is.
"Absolutely, there is a chance that war could break out. North Korea considers itself to be a nuclear power and one of the strongest nations in the world," said Zhang Liangui, an analyst at the Central Party School in Beijing. "North Korea has zero chance of winning such a war. But think how often wars break out because of wrong judgment.