I was asked to provide my thoughts on what is happening in north Korea.
There are two lines of thinking on this for me.
One is that looked at as a whole and very broadly what is happening is very much in line with the nK strategic playbook. Yes, the rhetoric is up higher than normal but in general we ahave this or variations of this over the past six decades. If Kim Jong-il was doing this he would know what the off ramps are and when to scale back to ensure achieving his objectives over time (they have much more patience than we do and of course judge success much differently than we do both in terms of action and time).
But the problem is Kim Jong-un. He is young and in experienced and he did not have 21 years by his father's side as his father did (1973-1994 for Kim Jong-il). Combined this with the fact that his "western educational experience" may have given him an unwarranted level of hubris and this is made worse by sycophantic generals who will only tell Jim what he wants to hear because their own survival is based on their demonstrated personal loyalty to Kim so there can be no truth to power and providing him with a realistic assessment of the situation and what the ROK and US might do.
This is made worse because part of the assessment of the senior leaders will be correct as based on historical evidence. That is the ROK and US have rarely responded to any north Korean action with decisive force and they are unlikely to do so despite the level of rhetoric and provocations the regime conducts.
But of course the political situation is much different in the ROK. The ROK has to respond decisively (which is why I emphasize that they must "win" the next tactical engagement –meaning they have to respond decisively at the point of provocation at the time of provocation. They cannot execute a "strategic response" by going deep against targets after time has passed and they have gone throughout thedecision making and consultative process with the US (and the US will push back heavily on this). They need to respond swiftly and decisively.
But of course given Kim Jong-un's experience this could cause movement up the escalation ladder and then we could be faced with real conflict because of the miscalculation and inexperienced leadership of Kim Jong-un.
What does north Korea want? They want the US diplomat who will convince President Obama to pay the extortion demands. My Korean friend's assessment of a 3d nuclear test in April is a very real possibility – not that they definitely will conduct one – but all of the actions (2 missile tests and the nuclear test) may be to set up the ability to "sell" the cancellation of the next test. Everything about their strategy is to accomplish two things below their vital national interest (survival of the Kim Family Regime) and that is 1) to use provocations to gain political and economic concessions (that contribute to regime survival) and 2) to split the ROK/US Alliance (which will support long term survival of the regime by providing the correlation of forces they need to successfully execute their campaign plan to unify their peninsula, thus guaranteeing regime survival by their calculus).
The bottom line is I would not be worried if Kim Jong-il was in charge. But given Kim Jong-un and the political situation in the ROK (they will respond) and the US (the Administration will not pay the extortion) we could be in for some interesting times.
Hope that sheds some light but it is still pretty dark up there. My real fear as always are on the attached charts. See the implosion, explosion paradox. http://db.tt/F2n3hHED