So can I automate my posts on North Korea or not?

Your humble blogger has been too hard at work trashing his diminished reputation for seriousness working on other projects to blog about North Korea as of late. Now, the situation on the Korean Peninsula has been such a predictable cycle of DPRK provocative action, measured response, and more provocative action that I've been tempted to automate these posts the same way I have with Iran.

Still, as one reviews recent behavior, it's necessary to acknowledge that this cycle looks a little different. When Nick Kristof tweets that "I've been covering North Korean pugnacity and brinksmanship for 25 years, and I'm nervous about what might happen," the rest of us snap to attention.

So, after the missile test and the third nuclear test and the inevitable ratcheting up of United Nations sanctions, what's so troubling now? Well…

1) There was the novel threat from a North Korean general to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike against the United States, causing Washington to "be engulfed in a sea of fire."

2) North Korea has also declared that the 1953 armistice with South Korea is now "invalid," cutting off the direct phone link with South Korea at Panmunjom.

3) North Korea's propaganda machine has ramped up against new South Korean leader Park Geun-hye in a rather sexist fashion, decrying the "venomous swish of skirt" coming from the Blue House. In Korean, this language implies an "overly aggressive" woman.

4) Something something Dennis Rodman inanity something.

5) North Korea has dramatically ramped up the number of air force sorties, from 100 a day last summer to at least 550 a day now -- a number that comes close to matching the South Korean daily number.

So, seriously, WTF, Kim Jong Un? Is this simply a more severe version of typical DPRK brinkmanship, or is this something altogether new and destabilizing?

Well … I think it's the former. First, let's just ignore the DPRK's rhetoric, because it's always over the top -- or, as with Rodman, completely disingenuous. Let's look at the DPRK's actions. Here, even the cancellation of the armistice doesn't necessarily mean much, as McClatchy's Tom Lasseter points out:

Pyongyang is infamous for issuing dramatic but empty threats, like turning its enemies into an apocalyptic "sea of fire." The North has also announced on several previous occasions that it was pulling out from the armistice, most recently in 2009.…

The last time North Korea disconnected the hotline, in 2010, was a year when the North killed four South Koreans when it shelled an island and was accused of torpedoing a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors.

But Yonhap also reported that the North had not severed another North-South communication line, this one related to a North Korean industrial zone where South Korean companies operate.

So … nothing much new here. Beyond that there's the ramping up of air sorties, which does seem like a more powerful signal, if for no other reason than that it's actually a costly act. And beyond that … a lot of hot air.

So does that mean I can automate my North Korea posts? Well, Fareed Zakaria has a different spin:

No one knows for sure what is going on. It is highly unlikely that these moves are being conceived and directed by Kim Jong Un, the young leader who succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il. North Korea’s military dictatorship has wedded itself to the third generation of the Kim dynasty, which now seems to serve mostly as a unifying symbol for its people. But it is unlikely that a 28-year-old with almost no background in politics or experience in government is conceiving and directing these policies. (He does appear to have free rein on basketball policy in the hermit kingdom.)

The most likely explanation for North Korea’s actions is that it is trying to get attention. In the past, its provocations usually led to international (especially American) efforts to defuse tensions. Then came negotiations, which led to an agreement of sorts, which the North soon cheated on, which led to sanctions, isolation and, finally, North Korean provocation again.

The pattern may be repeating — but it’s a high-stakes game, with nuclear weapons, brinkmanship and hyper-nationalism all interacting. Things could go wrong. The most important new development, however, is China’s attitude change. In a remarkable shift, China — which sustains its neighbor North Korea economically — helped draft and then voted last week for U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.

For decades, Beijing saw Pyongyang as a historical ally. But now, a senior Obama administration official told me Wednesday, “We are clearly hearing increasingly levels of frustration and concern” from Beijing about North Korea.

Zakaria is correct to point out Beijing's growing disenchantment with Pyongyang. But I tend to share Jennifer Lind's assessment that this disenchantment won't necessarily lead to any dramatic changes:

One shouldn't exaggerate the significance of these recent developments. After all, in the U.N. negotiations over sanctions -- this time as before -- the Chinese have consistently played the role of watering down the degree of punishment imposed against Pyongyang. And in the past Chinese firms have helped North Koreans evade sanctions. It remains to be seen whether Beijing intends to enforce the new measures.…

Because the specter of North Korea's collapse could potentially destabilize the Korea peninsula, Beijing may continue to shield Pyongyang. But the two country's [sic] increasingly divergent interests suggest that China's dissatisfaction with North Korea is only likely to grow.

I'd be even more skeptical. Obviously, China's leadership would prefer North Korea to act in a less provocative manner -- but they really don't want a disintegrating North Korean state. So even if they're disenchanted, they won't apply the necessary pressure to foment regime change or regime collapse. Which means that Pyongyang will still have carte blanche to provoke everyone else.

So my take is … not much has changed. I suspect that the reason for all of the amping up has to do with domestic politics on all sides. On the one hand, Kim Jong Un is playing to his own military base. On the other hand, North Korea is also trying to suss out the policy preferences and resolve of the new leadership in both South Korea and China.

Unless and until Beijing gets fed up enough to desire a strategic shift on the Korean Peninsula, I'm dubious that anything will change.

Am I missing anything?


The Geopolitics of 'Girls'

How Lena Dunham explains the world.

This is the Golden Age for television shows that offer commentary, directly or allegorically, on world politics. Shows like AMC's The Walking Dead and NBC's Revolution examine how humans react to a Hobbesian system in which trust is a scarce commodity. Showtime's Homeland and FX's crackerjack The Americans explore the corrosive effects of espionage and counterintelligence during the War on Terror and Cold War respectively. HBO's Game of Thrones combines a dollop of magic with the realpolitik of 17th-century Europe. I'm here to tell you: Forget all those shows. The true TV connoisseur appreciates that the most insightful television show about world politics airing right now is, obviously, Girls.

I'll wait until you finish your peals of laughter. Ready? OK, sure, at first glance it might seem as though Lena Dunham's dry comedy is merely about the trials and tribulations of aimless millenials congregating in the hipper enclaves of Brooklyn. Heck, the biggest online debate in its second season was about whether someone as hot as Patrick Wilson would really go for someone as unconventional as Dunham (the correct answer, by the way, is yes). But anyone who has heard Dunham speak about the show knows that she's quite savvy about her characters' flaws and foibles. The central journey in Girls is how immature people fumble their way toward maturity. The parallels to world politics here are surprisingly strong -- after all, sovereign states are a relatively recent phenomenon in human history, so national polities also possess some immaturity.

While "national culture" is a shopworn concept in international relations, it is inescapable that most of the major characters in Girls evoke distinct national tropes. Start with the protagonist: Dunham's Hannah Horvath, a struggling young writer who clearly represents the United States in all her fading hegemony. She borrows from others in order to afford her current lifestyle. Hannah manages to insert herself into every situation, making it all about her -- a process that evokes myriad U.S. military interventions. Like many an American president abroad, Hannah often leaps before she looks, convinced that the experience will be enriching. Of all the characters on the show, she is naked the most often, revealing a transparency that parallels the American political system. Finally, despite all of her flaws, Hannah clearly possesses both talent and charm, which allows her to get away with such egregious behavior for sustained periods of time -- until it finally catches up with her. Tell me I haven't just described the United States as viewed by the rest of the world.

If Hannah is America, her female friends represent other major players in the Western alliance system. Jemima Kirke's Jessa, who, on a whim, marries a banker she despises, is France -- self-absorbed, flighty, with a taste for the grand gesture that doesn't quite work out. As the junior member of the quartet, Zosia Mamet's Shoshanna, the youngest of the four friends, embodies Canada -- seemingly polite, but bubbling over with passive-aggressive insecurities. As for Hannah's ostensible best friend, Allison Williams' Marnie, she exemplifies Germany. There is much to admire in Marnie -- her undeniable beauty, her self-assuredness, and her unwillingness to go into debt. Unfortunately, however, Marnie expects everyone else to behave the same way she does -- and is truly flummoxed when others seem to prosper using a different recipe for success. Because she's so attractive, however, many of the characters still try to emulate or win her approval, to the point of self-flagellation. In this way Charlie, Marnie's on-again, off-again paramour, represents the rest of the European Union and all EU aspirants -- and Charlie suffers just as much as they do. The estrangement between Marnie and Hannah crystallizes the fraying transatlantic partnership better than any earnest think tank white paper on the subject.

If the female characters on Girls represent the West, the two most important male characters come from the BRICs. Ray is a coffee-shop manager, the oldest member of the group, and far and away the most cynical and angry character on the show. He scorns just about everything that every other character says or does, but seems unable to make much of himself. Ray is Russia personified. In contrast, Adam -- Hannah's former beau -- is China. He's a force to be reckoned with, but it's not entirely clear whether he's socialized into how the rest of Brooklyn society behaves. One could posit that Hannah's relationship with Adam represents the promise and peril of the "responsible stakeholder" concept. On the one hand, Hannah seems to use her "soft power" to entice Adam into liking her a lot more than he originally thought -- in other words, getting him to want what she wants. He begins to socialize with Hannah's circle of friends. At the same time, Hannah is unsure just how much she wants to engage Adam, reflecting America's ambivalence in its relationship with China. At the end of the first season, she is quite uneasy about moving in together. The result is an Adam that, much like China, is angry and frustrated at his treatment by others -- which in turn leads to bellicose behavior, which in turn leads Hannah to call the cops and try to contain his behavior. The breakdown in the relationship between Hannah and Adam is yet another example of the security dilemma destroying lives.

With the finale of Season Two this Sunday, we will get some further insight into Dunham's geopolitical worldview when a number of dramatic arcs could find resolution -- or not. If Hannah and Marnie reconcile, then Dunham is clearly urging the United States and European Union to patch up their petty differences, negotiate that transatlantic trade deal, and show the rest of the world a West reunited. If Adam and Hannah reconcile, then Girls is suggesting, akin to A. Iain Johnston's work, that China can be socialized into international norms. If, however, Hannah's obsessive-compulsive behavior requires her to commit herself to a psychiatric facility, then Dunham will have delivered a most Spenglerian pronouncement: The United States is doomed to cycles of self-defeating behavior on the world stage.

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