Thomas Lifson writes a remarkably sanguine article in which he posits that the recent fizzle-pop out of N. Korea was not a show of strength, but a last ditch effort to keep the N. Korean army in line:
Any dictator who can allow a million or two of his 20 million countrymen to die of starvation, rather than open up his country to allow the adequate provision of proffered aid, must be pretty well invulnerable. Death by starvation is visible, prolonged, painful, and heart-wrenching for the survivors. Anyone dominant enough to compel mass acceptance of starvation must have an iron grip on the reins of power.
Or so one might assume.
Thus most foreign observers consider Kim Jong-il to be acting to achieve foreign policy goals of some sort by provocatively launching missiles and detonating nuclear devices. Perhaps he is demonstrating to terrorist state customers that he has salable goods? Or perhaps he is seeking unilateral talks with the United States? Or perhaps he is just aid-seeking or even anticipating another deal like he got with Bill Clinton, in which the United States will supply billions of dollars in aid in return for promises he doesn’t intend to honor.
But an alternative theory of power in North Korea suggests that Kim is in fact desperate, and is acting to quiet a threatened rebellion by the only group which matters when it comes to domestic power: the North Korean military. His unsuccessful missile launches, his nuclear test which was probably a “fizzle”, and his number two man, Kim Yong-nam’s bizarre threat to to take “physical steps” against the United States, all might all be part of an effort to persuade potential rebels among the military that he is still vigorously accomplishing the goal of making North Korea a mighty state, a major factor in the world able to command the attention, and intimidate even the United States.
Because he’s a good writer and thinker, Lifson provides a lot of support for this premise. You can read it all here.