North Korea's recent sinking of a South Korean warship was "an inexcusable act of aggression," says Fred Kaplan in Slate, but it didn't come out of nowhere. The two Koreas have been playing "cat-and-mouse games" at sea for years, with North Korean patrol boats periodically crossing the maritime border and receiving warnings from South Korean vessels. Sometimes the confrontations end there; sometimes they escalate, as they did in June 1999 and in November of last year. Both earlier confrontations ended in humiliating defeat for the North. North Korean leader Kim Jong Il probably felt he needed to make a show of strength — to South Korea, and to his own military commanders — but the March submarine attack, which killed 46 South Korean sailors, pushed the violence to scary new heights, and fueled speculation that Kim has finally, truly, lost his mind. But perhaps that's what Kim intended. Here, an excerpt:
"Kim Jong Il, like his father before him, is a master at parlaying his weakness into strength. He has no economic resources, no allies (except China), and probably a teetering power base at home. But he does have enough nuclear fuel to build a few A-bombs (whether he's built any, beyond the two exploded in tests, is unknown), and he has thousands of artillery rockets that are a few minutes' flying time from Seoul (as well as some ballistic missiles that could hit Tokyo).
As a kicker, he's cultivated an image of being — and may in fact be — crazy; certainly, he's eccentric and almost certainly desperate. He's kept friends and foes off-guard for years by making them think — perhaps correctly — that, under pressure, he's liable to do anything.
He's like the daredevil in a game of highway chicken who visibly throws his steering wheel out the window, forcing the saner players to accommodate and veer off the road."