"Oh, you need timing" -- Jimmy Jones's memorable lyric from the summer of 1960 may be a bit retro for Kim Jong Un's iPod. But it's sure in his playbook.
Take those Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missiles. After weeks of cat-and-mouse games, trundling the missiles around North Korea's east coast, on May 6 spy satellites reported them gone -- the day before U.S. President Barack Obama met South Korean President Park Geun-hye in Washington. Quite a gift to the "hostess" of the Blue House, South Korea's government, as the Pyongyang party daily Rodong Sinmun rudely tagged her. As she huddled with Obama to ponder what to do about North Korea, Pyongyang sent a clear signal that, for now, the crisis is over. Indeed, after several weeks of tension, things are mostly calm again (though North Korea did manage to pop off a few short-range projectiles in recent days). And we're left wondering: What the hell was that all about?
Even by North Korean standards, the tensions stoked this year have been extreme and prolonged. In February, the North has conducted its third nuclear test; it later cut hotlines to the South and tore up the 1953 Armistice and inter-Korean non-aggression pacts. On March 30 it declared a "state of war" with the South. Twenty separate statements, the latest on April 18, called for a "final battle" with the United States and South Korea, often also threatening a "merciless nuclear strike." What does it mean? What does Kim (or whoever actually runs North Korea) want from the world?
The ostensible reasons the North Koreans give -- outrage at being denied peaceful use of space, a U.S.-led global conspiracy targeting them, and fear of U.S.-South Korean war games -- won't wash. Kim Jong Un may be new to this, but veterans like former nuclear negotiator Kim Kye Gwan -- who, during the Six Party Talks in 2005-2008 seemed to bond so well with U.S. chief negotiator Christopher Hill -- know the rules. Launching a big rocket, with or without a satellite, in U.S. and U.N. eyes is a long-range missile test, and leads to more censures and sanctions.
Pyongyang's faux rage at Security Council Resolutions 2087 of Jan. 22, and 2095 of March 7, which condemned its rocket launch and nuclear test respectively, recycled similar ludicrous canards it hurled at similar resolutions in 2006 and 2009, calling the Security Council, a "marionette of the U.S." A U.S. plot, and puppet? Hardly: Every resolution has been unanimous. China and Russia water down the wording, but they're on board. It's North Korea versus the world.
And that's just the way they like it. Some believe that all their banging and shouting is just a bumpkin's way of knocking on the door -- rude and rough, but they are out in the cold and they want in. If that were true, Kim Jong Un just missed a prime opportunity. In 2002, Park, then an assemblywoman (but always the daughter of a former South Korean president) came to Pyongyang and dined with his dad, then leader Kim Jong Il -- so they know her. Since 2011, she has called for "trustpolitik." Vague? No. It means: I Am Not Lee Myung-bak (the former president who refused to negotiate with the North). Try me. We can do business.
Yet Kim Jong Un refused to give Park or peace a chance. As in 2006 and 2009 -- Pyongyang can be so predictable, when it's not being unpredictable -- Pyongyang followed its rocket launch with a nuclear test. Its timing -- on Feb. 12, 2013, a fortnight before Park's inauguration -- not only rained on her parade but guaranteed yet one more Security Council knuckle-rap to wax angry about. Pyongyang also took more than its usual umbrage at the U.S.-South Korean war games that roll around every spring. North Korea is even notified of the dates, so its shrieks that this is an invasion plan ring hollow. (The North Koreans don't believe their own propaganda, so nor should the rest of the world.)