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Outside View: Iran plays North Korean card in nuclear poker game
by James Zumwalt
Herndon, Va. (UPI) Apr 16, 2013

disclaimer: image is for illustration purposes only

With the beat of war drums becoming a daily ritual in North Korea and as analysts struggle to assess what makes the natives restless, three points are worth considering -- especially since the White House ignores the third.

First, Pyongyang WILL NOT initiate a nuclear attack against South Korea or the United States.

Despite North Korea's seemingly unreasonable and irrational threats, Pyongyang's leadership knows exactly what it is doing. Thus, as unreasonable as it appears to outside observers, its leadership has always focused on one primary objective -- preserving its own survival. A Kim dynasty, enduring for as long as the country has existed, truly understands this, even one led today by boy king Kim Jung Un.

In the weeks and months ahead, the North's chest-pounding rhetoric will continue with various threatening military feints conducted -- such as recently relocating two intermediate-range missiles to its east coast.

But no nuclear attack will occur as Kim knows it would trigger a devastating U.S. response.

The danger, however, since the North has severed all communications with South Korea, is a threatening action by Pyongyang could be misread by Seoul as a last pre-emptive opportunity to halt an attack or could easily turn violent due to an overzealous military unit commander on either side of the DMZ.

Second, beating the war drum serves Kim well.

As in most dictatorships, domestic conditions often make life unbearable for the people. Dictators become concerned conditions might eventually instill in their people the courage to act, overriding the fear dictators have instilled in them not to.

The Arab Spring has weighed heavy on Kim's mind, especially in view of his false promises to improve the economy after coming to power over a year ago. The Kim family's generational abuse of their people includes imprisonment, torture, famine and human indignity.

Its leadership has given birth to a generation of North Korean "hobbits" -- standing far smaller than their brothers to the south. People are prosecuted for ridiculous "crimes" such as failing to dust off Kim photographs; children are taught loyalty to the Kims trumps loyalty to one's family.

For young Kim, this environment calls for redirecting his people's focus to a non-existent outside threat. His seemingly fearless demeanor to fight that enemy also instills fear among his people who recognize -- absent an external enemy -- an even greater ruthlessness could await them.

Third, Kim is merely a puppet being manipulated by a master puppeteer in Tehran.

Over the last several years, Pyongyang and Tehran have developed a close relationship, evolving as Iran has sought to use North Korea as its own nuclear arms research lab. While Iranians have been more limited in tests they could perform, they have benefitted from the North Koreans who, also operating under U.N. sanctions, have defied similar restraints.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's eight years in office have only strengthened a relationship into which a small window was opened to international view in 2007. That year, the Israelis, upon determining a nuclear facility was secretly being built by the North Koreans in Syria and funded by the Iranians, destroyed it in a daring air attack. Denying it was a nuclear facility, Syria remained unusually quiet about the raid, subsequently denying international inspectors adequate access to refute Israel's claim.

Pyongyang has profited financially from the nuclear arms technology it has shared with Iran -- perhaps even benefitting from Iranian scientists' input -- as it has embarked upon refining its development.

There is another card being played in Iran's nuclear arms development poker game with the West. If one examines Tehran's actions over the last decade as it pursued a nuclear program, a common thread exists: Every time the West sought to put the focus on Tehran's program, Iran -- either directly or via a proxy -- sought to shift it elsewhere by creating an international incident.

Whether it was seizing British sailors patrolling international waters or American hikers near their border or instructing Hezbollah or Hamas to do their dirty work against Israel, Iran has proven to be an effective master at diverting attention from its own program either directly, by its own actions, or indirectly, by using puppets.

What better way to do so now, as Tehran senses it is in the final stretch, by focusing U.S. attention on a seemingly crazed Kim? And, based on U.S. reluctance in the past to respond to Pyongyang's actual acts of aggression, even young Kim recognizes he has little to fear by throwing a temper tantrum threatening a nuclear strike.

It is, therefore, no surprise the most recent round of nuclear talks with Iran accomplished nothing as Tehran simultaneously issued a statement supporting Pyongyang, warning the United States "will suffer great losses if a war breaks out" in the region.

Also, to further distract the United States and raise concerns over simultaneously confronting several international "fronts" in addition to Iran, Tehran plays its Syria card. It will devote what assets it can to keep President Bashar Assad in office regardless of the mounting death toll. And Assad will stay as long as possible as the Iranians undoubtedly guaranteed him safe passage to do so. But again, it forces the United States to reflect on yet another fire in need of being extinguished as the Iranian threat looms ahead.

With the cards it is playing, Iran believes it holds the upper hand and ultimately will win this high stakes nuclear poker game.

(Lt. Col. James G. Zumwalt, a retired Marine infantry officer, served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.)

(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)


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