But South Koreans are fed up. Since North Korea torpedoed a South Korean navy ship in March 2010 and shelled an island a few months later in attacks that killed sailors and civilians, the government and public no longer preach patience and stability so as not to rattle the South Korean stock market. South Korean military leaders have re-written their military rules of engagement. They are now prepared to retaliate for the next military act, possibly even going after command structures in North Korea, which could ignite a full-scale war on the peninsula.
The South Korean conservative political contender for the presidential election in December, moreover, is in no mood to look weak on North Korea. Even if the long-shot liberal candidates who preach engagement with the North were to win, Pyongyang has a history of provoking a newly elected leader in the South to show who is the alpha dog on the peninsula, in which case, public pressure for a strong response would be difficult to ignore.
Based on my research of U.S.-North Korea negotiations since 1984, within an average of five months after a provocation Washington is usually back at the bargaining table, often because it wants to de-escalate a crisis. The Obama administration, facing a tough election, is not interested in offering exit ramps to North Korea, for fearing of being denounced as weak by Republicans.
Optimists often cite China as the answer to avoiding another crisis. The mid-August meetings between the Chinese and Kim's uncle, Jang Song-taek, may be a prelude to more economic deals and even a visit by the new leader to Beijing. But China cannot restrain Pyongyang from belligerence; and it cannot reform North Korea's family-run regime, no matter how many bureaucrats it offers to train. It can only bribe them to return temporarily to a negotiating table that is now empty of other willing partners.
The only thing missing right now is a spark. Perhaps North Korea's new leader is busy amusing himself with Disney and his new lovely wife instead of dealing with problems like the flooding that has ravaged the countryside. NGOs report that the food shortage situation is worsening. And the rogue nuclear and missile programs continue to expand. Infighting within the regime is likely intensifying, manifested in the surprise sacking in July of the country's top military general, Ri Yong-ho. Some interpret Ri's departure as evidence of the young reform-minded Kim trying to usurp power from the hard-line military.
It appears, however, that Kim might be trying to redirect the money the military earns through lucrative business activities toward his own patronage networks. This means there are some very unhappy generals in North Korea today. This could be a gutsy move by Kim; it could also be a stupid one if it prompts challenges from the military.
Even if Kim successfully consolidates power, he needs a new ideology in order to demand the blind obedience that characterized his father and grandfather's rule. He appears to be downgrading, not celebrating the military, so he cannot copy his father's "military-first" ideology. (It probably doesn't help that his father's ideology bankrupted the country in every respect except for making nuclear weapons.)