As Donald Rumsfeld used to say, there are known unknowns. Two of them are confronting the world today, and both stem from the Korean peninsula.
One: What will North Korean leader Kim Jong-un do now? He’s ordered missiles to be ramped up, fired a gun on TV, watched missiles shoot down dummy planes and told his military they were cleared for an attack on South Korea and the United States. He said “a sea of fire” would engulf his enemies if they dared to provoke him. Earlier this week, South Korea’s Unification Minister, Ryoo Kihi-Jae, said “there are signs” that a fourth nuclear test is being prepared at the Punggye-ri test site. What is the next move?
The other quandary: What will the newly installed Chinese President Xi Jinping, whose state has protected North Korea for decades, do now?
Let’s answer the second question first. North Korea survives, in large part, because of China. China wants North Korea to survive so it’s a buffer against the South; China also doesn’t want millions of refugees if the North Korean regime collapses. It doesn’t like what the latest Kim is doing, but it does have the best back channel into his thoughts. He’s reported as depending for advice on his aunt Kim Kyong-hui, the North’s most powerful woman, and her husband, Jang Sung-taek, chosen by Kim Jong-Il before his death in 2011 to be the closest consigliere to his son. Jang is the main contact man with the Chinese. It may be that he has reassured the new Party leadership that this is just business as usual: all strut and no strike.
President Barack Obama has pressured Xi to talk sense to the young ruler, but there’s no obvious sign of success there. Xi may know that the saber will (as before) rattle loudly but not strike. But we don’t know.