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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles while watching the Korean People's Army tank crews' competition at an unknown location, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. In the last few days, North Korea has launched a series of missiles that landed in the North Sea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un smiles while watching the Korean People's Army tank crews' competition at an unknown location, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency. In the last few days, North Korea has launched a series of missiles that landed in the North Sea. (Courtesy of KCNA)

North Korea is working hard to become, or at least appear, more dangerous amid concerns that it may be starting to look at nuclear bombs as tactical weapons that could be used by its military at any time.

In the last two months, the reclusive nation has launched various missiles on several occasions, including firing five short-range projectiles into the North Sea on Monday.

The only real punishment that the world has dished out in response to the North’s decades of dangerous provocations has been a series of slaps on the wrist: U.N. Security Council sanctions that the country largely seems to have found ways to get around. The result is a leadership that repeatedly pushes the envelope.

While there are concerns about the North developing the capability to reach the U.S. mainland with nuclear weapons, as it has repeatedly threatened to do, Pyongyang’s bluster has been mostly empty. It has carried out some small-scale attacks, shelling an island and sinking a South Korean naval ship several years ago, but nothing rising to the level of an international crisis.

Pyongyang also has to realize its limitations: Any response to even a failed attempt to hit the continental U.S. would likely flatten the North. But the North could think that carrying out a limited nuclear strike, perhaps on a remote part of South Korea or even a lightly populated island would show that it is indeed willing to use its growing arsenal.

Whatever leader Kim Jong Un’s end game is, such a strike could be a calculated gamble that the West might see concessions as a better alternative to full-scale retaliation, particularly given the uncertainty of how China, the North’s main ally and trade partner, would react.

“North Korea’s rhetoric suggests the idea that nuclear weapons are usable,” said an analysis posted last week on 38 North, a website run by Johns Hopkins University that monitors the country. “That may be a mere bluff given North Korea’s track record of cheap talk and its emphasis on a strategic deterrent (ballistic missiles), but that future possibility should be taken seriously by the United States and South Korea.”

It’s impossible to know what Pyongyang is thinking, and there is a tendency to see Kim as an unpredictable, illogical leader who has further isolated the already reclusive country. And he has made a number of boasts this year about improvements in the country’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs that most experts think are exaggerated.

“The popular perception is, here’s this crazy dictator who tries to fire rockets into the air and they just explode on him… and we fall into that,” Victor Cha, former director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council under President George W. Bush, said in an interview with Voice of America.

“But each time they are successful, it’s much further than we thought they were, and that’s always worrying.”

This is a country that has built the world’s fourth-largest standing military and put a great deal of money and effort into its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, even if that means dire living conditions for the vast majority of its people. It sees nuclear weapons as the key to maintaining the regime.

“I think they understand that there’s pain that comes with these actions that they take,” Cha told VOA. “But, their objectives are longer term, and they’re willing to endure that pain, and we have seen throughout history that they really don’t care about the effect on their population.”

The latest U.N. sanctions have been described as the toughest in 20 years. The big question is whether longtime ally China will actually enforce them, and if it does, how the North might react. One option could be selling bombs or missiles for profit to terrorists. Another could be to fight.

“If China enforces these sanctions as the spirit of the resolution suggests it should, then North Korea will be squeezed hard — to the point where they may be backed into a corner,” Van Jackson, associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, told Stars and Stripes. “You may see military action before you see governmental collapse.”

Some of the North’s boasts also may be aimed at bolstering Kim’s clout amid speculation that he hasn’t fully consolidated power since taking over following the death of his father more than four years ago, as shown by the continuing brutal purges of high-level officials.

Kim would want to look all-powerful heading into the first congress of the ruling Workers’ Party in three decades. But that won’t take place until May, and it seems likely that he would want to make a big splash shortly before the meeting.

Pyongyang carried out its fourth nuclear test on Jan. 6, followed by its second successful launch of a long-range ballistic missile a month later. In recent weeks, it claimed it has developed a nuclear bomb small enough to fit on a warhead, along with a re-entry vehicle that would allow the weapon to survive the plunge from space.

Last week, the North fired two ballistic missiles, apparently from a road-mobile launcher, raising concerns about a strike with little to no notice. Additionally, satellite photos have shown some recent activity at the country’s underground nuclear test site, its main rocket launch compound and its submarine bay.

The North already claims to have the ability to fire ballistic missiles from submarines. Experts say the visual “proof” appeared to have been faked, but the current flurry of activity at the submarine bay, documented by satellite photos on the 38 North website, show determination to work out the kinks in the program.

While making good on Kim’s commitment last week to try out several ballistic missiles or detonate another bomb would be worrying — and a direct slap in the face to the international community’s efforts to reign in the country — it also would likely more of the same.

Whatever the case, the current crisis seems to be playing out differently than the last one in 2013, which was called the tensest time on the peninsula in decades until the North slowly backed away from the brink. This time, it seems determined to take things even closer to the edge and perhaps stare the abyss in the face.

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