There are a few facts to keep in mind to understand what’s going on in the wake of the death this week of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
#1. US foreign policy vis-a-vis North Korea has always sought to force the latter’s collapse to pave the way for its absorption into the US-dominated South  — and did so well before Pyongyang began to work on nuclear weapons. US hostility toward North Korea has never been about nuclear weapons. On the contrary, North Korea’s nuclear weapons are a consequence of US hostility. US hostility, now in its seventh decade, is about what it has always been about: putting an end to what Washington mistakenly calls North Korea’s Marxist-Leninist system (Marxism-Leninism has been replaced by Juche ideology—a home-grown doctrine of self-reliance), its non-market system, and its self-directed economic development . None of these offer much latitude for US profit-making at North Korea’s expense, and hence are singled out for demolition.
#2. North Korea only began to seek nuclear weapons after the United States announced in 1993 that it was retargeting some of its strategic nuclear missiles from the former Soviet Union to North Korea. Since then the country has only been able to develop its nuclear capability to a kindergarten level.  The plutonium devices it tested in 2006 and 2009 produced only one-tenth the power of the Hiroshima blast. There is no evidence it has miniaturized a warhead to fit atop a missile. And its missile program is plagued by problems. 
#3. North Korea is a military pipsqueak, whose personnel are deployed in large numbers to agriculture. The military budgets and weapons’ sophistication of its adversaries, the United States, South Korea and Japan, tower over its own. If the Pentagon’s budget is represented by the 6’ 9” basketball player Magic Johnson, North Korea’s military budget is 1”, about the height of a small mouse. South Korea’s is 4.5” and Japan’s 3.9”, multiple times larger than the North’s. 
#4. North Korea has no more military heft to mount a provocation against the United States than a mouse has to beat Magic Johnson on the basketball court. Nor has it the capability to wage a civil war against its southern compatriots and expect to win. North Korea is not an aggressive threat. “In the Obama analysis,” writes New York Times reporter David Sanger, “the North is receding into what the president’s top strategists have repeatedly called a ‘defensive crouch,’ trying to stave off the world with a barrage of missile and nuclear tests…Constantly on the brink of starvation, its military so broke that it cannot train its pilots, it has no illusions about becoming a great power in Asia. Its main goal is survival.” 
#5. Because the United States is a military Gargantua compared to North Korea, and South Korea and Japan have better equipped militaries, they can safely stage provocations against the North, forcing Pyongyang into a defense-spending drain of its treasury, bringing closer the realization of the US goal of tipping the country into crisis and possibly collapse. On the other hand, North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party wants to avoid confrontations at all costs, short of surrendering to the demands that it close up shop, and re-open under South Korean management.
#6. Provocations, then, are all on the other side. There are few acts more provocative than the United States’ targeting of North Korea with strategic nuclear missiles, nor former US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s warning that the Pentagon could turn North Korea into a charcoal briquette . Six decades of Washington-led economic warfare against the country is equally provocative, and a principal cause of North Korea’s impoverishment. Tens of thousands of US troops are deployed along the North’s southern borders, US warships and nuclear missile-equipped submarines prowl the periphery of its territorial waters, and US warplanes menace its airspace. Pyongyang is only the immediate architect of North Korea’s Songun (military-first) policy. Washington is the ultimate architect. Finally, US and South Korean militaries conduct regular war games exercises, one of which, Ulchi Freedom Guardian, is an exercise in invading North Korea. Who’s provoking who?
#7. Kim Jong Il, the recently deceased North Korean leader–literally depicted in South Korean children’s books as a red devil with horns and fangs –has been equally demonized in the Western mass media for starving his people. It is true that food shortages have plagued the country. But the vilifying Kim obituaries don’t mention why North Koreans are hungry. The answer is sanctions.  US foreign policy, like that of the Allied powers in WWI toward Germany, has been to starve its adversary into submission. This isn’t acknowledged, for obvious reasons. First, it would reveal the inhumane lengths to which US foreign policy is prepared to reach to secure its goals. And second, North Korean hunger must be used to discredit public ownership and a central planning as a workable economic model. North Koreans are hungry, the anti-Communist myth goes, because socialism doesn’t work. The truth of the matter is that North Koreans are hungry because Washington has made them so. Not surprisingly, calls by humanitarian groups for the United States to deliver food aid are being brushed aside with a litany of bizarre excuses, the latest being that food aid can’t be delivered because Kim Jong-il’s son, Kim Jong-eun, has succeeded him.  Huh? The real reason food aid won’t be delivered is because it would contradict US foreign policy. The United States once considered the death of half a million Iraqi children “worth it”.  Its leaders would consider the sanctions-produced demise through starvation of as many North Koreans worth it, as well.
#8. The death of Kim Jong-il is a potential boon for US foreign policy. There is a possibility of disorganization within the leadership, and internal conflicts leading to a fraying unity of purpose. Rather than focusing on external threats, the leadership may be divided, and pre-occupied with succession. If so, this is, from the perspective of the United States and South Korea, a pivotal moment—a time when the country may be tipped into collapse. And so, at this moment, who would you expect to unleash a provocation: Pyongyang? Or Washington and Seoul? At the best of times, Pyongyang wants to avoid a fight. At this critical juncture, it absolutely needs to. But the calculus works the other way round for the predators. Now is when North Korea is most vulnerable to predation.
#9. Predators never let on that they’re the hunters. Always they portray themselves as seeking to safeguard their security against the multiple threats of a dangerous world. Through guile and cunning, the mouse might just outmanoeuvre Magic Johnson and sink a basket or two. So it is that the United States, South Korea and Japan are said to be on high alert, in case the North Koreans stage another “provocation,” like the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan (for which the evidence of North Korean involvement is laughably thin at best ) or another Yeonpyeong Island artillery barrage (which the South set off by firing its own artillery into disputed waters, that, under international customary law, belong to the North. )
But as we’ve seen, it makes no sense to expect the scenario of a North Korean-furnished provocation to unfold. The more likely explanation for why US, South Korean and Japanese militaries are on high alert is because now is an ideal time for pressure on Pyongyang to be intensified, and because the triumvirate might be preparing to intervene militarily if conditions become propitious.
1. New York Times reporter David Sanger (“What ‘engagement’ with Iran and North Korea means,” The New York Times, June 17, 2009) notes that “American presidents have been certain they could … speed (North Korea’s) collapse, since the armistice that ended the Korean War in 1953.” At the same time, Korea expert Selig S. Harrison has written that “South Korea is once again seeking the collapse of the North and its absorption by the South.” (“What Seoul should do despite the Cheonan”, The Hankyoreh, May 14, 2010.)
2. According to Dianne E. Rennack, (“North Korea: Economic sanctions”, Congressional Research Service, October 17, 2006) many US sanctions have been imposed on North Korea for reasons listed as either “communism”, “non-market economy” or “communism and market disruption.”
3. In an article on Newt Gingrich’s fantasies about North Korea or Iran setting off a nuclear device far above US territory in order to unleash an electromagnetic pulse attack, New York Times’ reporter William J. Broad cites a US military expert who characterizes “the nations in question (as being) at the kindergarten stage of developing nuclear arms.” (“Among Gingrich’s passions, a doomsday vision”, The New York Times, December 11, 2011.)
4. Keith Johnson, “Pyongyang neighbors worry over nuclear arms”, The Wall Street Journal, December 20, 2011
5. The annual military budgets in billions are: United States, $700; North Korea, $10; South Korea, $39; Japan, $34. With the exception of the Pentagon’s budget, annual military expenditures were estimated by multiplying a country’s GDP by its military spending as a percentage of GDP, as estimated by the CIA and reported in its World Factbook. The source for the Pentagon’s military budget is Thom Shanker and Elisabeth Bumiller, “Weighing Pentagon cuts, Panetta faces deep pressures”, The New York Times, November 6, 2011.
6. David Sanger, “What ‘engagement’ with Iran and North Korea means,” The New York Times, June 17, 2009.
7. “Colin Powell said we would…turn North Korea into a ‘charcoal briquette,’ I mean that’s the way we talk to North Korea, even though the mainstream media doesn’t pay attention to that kind of talk. A charcoal briquette.” Bruce Cumings, “Latest North Korean provocations stem from missed US opportunities for demilitarizaton,” Democracy Now!, May 29, 2009.
8. David E. Sanger, “A ruler who turned North Korea into a nuclear state”, The New York Times, December 18, 2011.
9. See Stephen Gowans, “Amnesty International botches blame for North Korea’s crumbling healthcare”, What’s Left, July 20, 2010.
10. Evan Ramstad and Jay Solomon, “Dictator’s death stokes fears”, The Wall Street Journal, December 20, 2011.
11. Asked about a UN estimate that sanctions had killed 500,000 Iraqi children under the age of five, then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said infamously, “It’s a hard choice, but I think, we, think, it’s worth it.” 60 Minutes, May 12, 1996. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FbIX1CP9qr4. Retrieved June 19, 2011
12. See Tim Beal’s Crisis in Korea: American, China and the Risk of War. Pluto Press. 2011.
13. See Tim Beal, “Theatre of war: Smoke and mirrors on the Korean peninsula on the anniversary of the Yeonpyeong incident,” Pyongyang Report V13 N2, December 6, 2011 http://www.timbeal.net.nz/geopolitics/Theatre_of_War9.pdf and Stephen Gowans, “US Ultimately to Blame for Korean Skirmishes in Yellow Sea”, What’s Left, December 5, 2010. http://gowans.wordpress.com/2010/12/05/us-ultimately-to-blame-for-korean-skirmishes-in-yellow-sea/