4 reasons why North Korea won't start a war

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North Korea's baby-faced leader is no "super-villain" like Osama bin Laden.
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North Korea's baby-faced leader is no "super-villain" like Osama bin Laden.

Pyongyang talks a big game, but it doesn't quite have the political will and military muscle to back it up

Pyongyang's nuclear capabilities remain in question, but its deftness at violent rhetoric is pretty clear. In The New York Times, Andrei Lankov, author of The Real North Korea: Life and Politics in the Failed Stalinist Utopia, called the country "a tiny dictatorship with a bankrupt economy" that, nonetheless, has leaders that are "remarkably adept at manipulating global public opinion."

Continuing its string of threats, the North Korean government warned foreigners on Monday that they might want to leave South Korea due to the threat of nuclear war. Walk through Seoul, however, and it's difficult "to find any South Koreans who are panic-stricken," says Lankov. Why aren't they worried? Because North Korea is not likely to start a war. A look at why:

1. Kim Jong Un isn't a madman
North Korea likes to paint its "supreme leader" as something of a super-villain — a powerful, unpredictable man with his finger always on the button. The truth is Pyongyang has always been more pragmatic than it lets on. As Lankov points out, Kim Jong Un isn't Osama Bin Laden, planning a holy war from a cave:

North Korea is not a theocracy led by zealots who preach the rewards of the afterlife.

In fact, there are no good reasons to think that Kim Jong-un, North Korea's young dictator, would want to commit suicide; he is known for his love of basketball, pizza and other pleasures of being alive. The same logic applies to his advisers, old survivors in the byzantine world of North Korean politics who love expensive cars and good brandy. [New York Times]

It would be pretty hard to hang with Dennis Rodman if your country were hit by missiles. 

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2. The whole thing is just an international shakedown
Why act like you might start World War III at any minute? Because it gets results. Kim Jong Il played the same game and, as Howard French of The Atlantic notes, "steadily won concessions: fuel oil deliveries, food aid, nuclear reactor construction, hard cash-earning tourist enclaves and investment zones."

Max Fisher of The Washington Post likens Kim Jong Un to a kid with a temper tantrum who you give "the attention he craves and maybe even a toy, not because you think the threats are real or because he deserves it, but because you want the tantrum to stop." North Korea's economy is in a "dire state," says BBC News, with an estimated per capita income of $1,000 to $2,000 per year. With few natural resources and only one (legal) trade partner, winning some foreign aid in exchange for toning down the rhetoric would be a big win for Pyongyang.

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3. China doesn't exactly have North Korea's back
Susan Shirk of ChinaFile calls China the "the economic lifeline of North Korea," essentially propping up the regime with trade and some aid in times of crisis. China has every reason to want peace, mostly because the consequences of war would be disastrous, writes Steven Metz in World Politics Review:

Thousands, perhaps millions, of North Korean refugees would seek sanctuary in China. A nuclear exchange could poison the region. The global economy would be thrown into turmoil, hindering China's exports and increasing the cost of imported energy. And, worst of all, the ultimate outcome would be a North Korea less beholden to China and possibly occupied by the United States. [World Politics Review]

Despite its strong incentive to keep the current North Korean regime in place, China has been showing signs that its getting tired of its ally. Beijing partnered with the United States to draft tough sanctions against North Korea after it conducted a third nuclear test. On Tuesday, it announced it was shutting down tourism into North Korea, striking a blow to its neighbor's economy.

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To top it off, Chinese President Xi Jinping publicly acknowledged his frustrations with Pyongyang Sunday when, according to The Washington Post, he told an economic forum, "No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains." Those are not the words of a country ready to storm into war alongside North Korea.

4. North Korea would lose
North Korea, with a collection of 1.1 million soldiers, actually has the fourth largest standing army in the world, according to NBCNews.com. The problem is that its "equipment is seriously outdated, going back to its alliance with the former Soviet Union during the Cold War." South Korea, on the other hand, has been armed by the United States, which has also promised to defend South Korea militarily if necessary.

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North Korea could hold out for a few bloody days or weeks, but ultimately it would lose. "This is a military that if you ran them against the Iraqi military in 1991, North Korea would lose," Jennifer Lind, a professor at Dartmouth College, told USA Today. Kim Jong Un couldn't possibly like those odds.

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