It is hard to say when the disparagement of North Korea's nuclear weapons program started, but I like June 2000 as my cultural ground zero. That month, the venerable news magazine the Economist put a picture of a Kim Jong Il on its cover with the headline "Greetings, Earthlings."
After that, Kim Jong Il became funny. There were internet memes ("Kim Jong Il looking at things"), T-shirts courtesy of The Onion, and, oh yes, that song-and-dance number in Team America: World Police: "I'm So Ronery."
Even academics got into the act. Bruce Cummings famously opened a chapter in North Korea: Another Country by asking:
What can he possibly be thinking, standing there in his pear-shaped polyester pantsuit, pointy-toed elevator shoes, oversize sunglasses of malevolent tint, an arrogant curl to his feminine lip, an immodest pot-belly, a perpetual bad-hair day? He is thinking: get me out of here.
The North Koreans deserve some of this. North Korea's propaganda is so vitriolic that it can be hard to take seriously, a point that we Westerners make to North Koreans in many Track II meetings. When the Colorado legislature passed a harmless resolution urging North Korea to return the U.S.S. Pueblo, the U.S. ship seized in 1968, the North Koreans sent the sponsor of the bill a postcard inviting him to come and get it. (What's Korean for molon labe?)
The tendency to see North Korea as vaguely ridiculous has helped make the country's nuclear weapons program seem silly, too.
Which brings us to Kim Jong Un, son and successor to Kim Jong Il, and his bizarre wall map of nuclear death and destruction.
The initial response has been mirth. Wits in the Southwest, noting that one of the targets appears to be near Austin, Texas, immediately started a twitter hashtag: #whyaustin, suggesting that maybe Kim is irritated about missing Prince perform at SXSW or with his barbecue options in Pyongyang (although bulgogi is awfully tasty). Texas Governor Rick Perry even took the opportunity to shill for Austin, arguing that North Korea targeted the city because of its excellent business climate. "The individuals in North Korea understand that Austin, Texas, is a very important city in North America, as do corporate CEOs and others who are moving here in record numbers," he said. You can't make this stuff up.
Maybe, though, it is time to take all this just a bit more seriously. At the very least, when another country is making an overt threat to use nuclear weapons against specific places, it might be worth asking WTF?
The easiest place to start is with the Map of Death.
One target is clear: Washington, DC. North Korean officials have talked about striking Washington on any number of occasions, so this does not surprise.
Now, the other two targets are less clear. One is definitely in Southern California. My best guess is San Diego, which is the principal homeport for Pacific Fleet. There is a chance, I suppose, that Vandenberg Air Force Base is the target.
The last target -- initially thought by many to be Austin -- is the hardest one to make out. One of Kim's generals and his hat -- you just don't see a man in a kepi anymore! -- gets in the way. If the target is in Texas, one intriguing possibility is not Austin, but nearby San Antonio, sometimes called Cyber City, USA and home to Lackland Air Force Base and Air Force Cyber Command. The North Koreans have complained a lot lately about cyberattacks. It may seem odd, but North Korea is very worried about maintaining command and control of its nuclear forces.
The line seems a little far north for San Antonio, raising the possibility that the target lies behind the general's silly hat -- possibly Barksdale Air Force Base near Shreveport, LA, home of Air Force Global Strike Command.
If one has but four targets to select, these four reflect a certain logic. North Korea is targeting both the national and theater leadership in Washington and Hawaii, as well as major U.S. military installations for naval operations (San Diego) and either long-range bomber missions (if it is Barksdale) or cyberattacks (if it is Lackland).
The message is not terribly subtle, but then again we are talking about North Korean propaganda. The identification of specific U.S. targets is the most recent in a string of North Korean statements over the past year about targeting the United States, starting with the announcement that North Korea had established a "Strategic Rocket Forces Command." Since then, the North Koreans have spoken repeatedly about developing the ability to strike the United States.