South Korea on Wednesday raised its defence alert level to that of a vital threat, just short of a wartime designation of threats. The immediate reason is a possible missile test by North Korea. This is another step in the chain of reactions and counter reactions seen in the Korean peninsula in the past weeks. Last week, Pyongyang told diplomats that it would not be able to guarantee their safety in a conflict.

It has always been hard to fathom North Korea’s intentions. And this crisis is no different. For one, Pyongyang is not a normal country with normal political processes. Its decision-making processes are opaque at best. This flows directly from the manner in which the top rungs of leadership are recruited and confirmed. The equations between the civil and military leadership are often not clear. Dynastic succession in democracies and non-democracies are very different affairs. In a democracy, any elected official, dynast or not, has to answer the electorate. In a dictatorship, the process of acquiring legitimacy is very different and often leads through dangerous paths. But even these are careful in signalling strategic matters. North Korea is an outlier even among such countries.

All these problems have been in plain view for a while now. The country was subjected last month to harsh United Nations sanctions after it carried out its third nuclear test. The country’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, is a 30-year-old youth with little prior military or civil experience. His only qualification is that he is the son of a former supreme leader Kim Jong-il and the grandson of the country’s first dictator Kim il-Sung. Matters have come to such a pass that even Pyongyang’s main foreign backer, China, has expressed disquiet. No less than Prime Minister Xi Jinping said last Sunday: “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains." Even by the cryptic standards of China’s leadership, this is something like a rebuke.

Global sanctions and unease by a close ally are unlikely to move Pyongyang. Even if the current crisis blows away, such incidents will recur sooner than later. So long as North Korea remains an opaque polity, it will continue to rattle its neighbours.

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