A few of quick notes to remember when we're thinking about North Korea. First things first, despite the Bond villain methods Kim reportedly employs to dispose of those incurring his displeasure, the obsession with WMD and maintenance of a grotesquely over-large military, the grinding repression of the monstrous dictatorship, its synchronised mass parades and other trappings of royal pomp, and the inimitable blood curdling warnings against the "US imperialists" and the South Korean "fascist puppet regime", what Kim and his criminal cohort isn't is mad. Despite appearances, actions undertaken by individuals, organisations, and totalitarian dictatorships are simultaneously meaningful and, within their own terms, rational.
This is true of the Kim regime. Without excusing its awfulness, from the standpoint of the regime's preservation its long-standing military-first policy aids its longevity in two ways. Across the 38th Parallel sits a not insubstantial South Korean army backed by a major US military deployment replete with nuclear weapons. Effectively being on its own since the mid-70s without serious Soviet or Chinese backing, the North attended to its own Cold War frontier at the expense of a more rounded economic development. And so North Korean economics are locked in a death spiral. Perceived military necessity consumes the country's meagre resources, which holds back economic development, and therefore undermines the capacity to sustain the military. This is where the missile and nuclear programmes come in. They seem perverse, but it holds out the possibility of rescuing the regime from utter collapse. With nuclear weapons and the capacity to reach not just targets in the South and Japan, but also US bases further afield and the American west coast, not only does the North have a serious bargaining chip in its long-term aim of a non-aggression treaty with the US, much of the military capacity becomes redundant and resources can be expended on making the transition away from autarchy to a managed market system, as per China. As this transition is affected, new berths have to be found for bureaucrats who've crawled up the military's ladder - and the odd periodic purge works to get rid of those who might prove to be too awkward.
Second, for the majority of the South's residents, particularly those born after the Korean War, and for whom the US-backed post-war dictatorships are hazy memories, the North's threats, drills, and nuclear tests are more or less part of the mundane everyday. Like most advanced democracies, the right are adept at stoking fears - this time about the North and therefore the need to take a tough line with Pyongyang, And this fear of the other is most effective among older voters who, like everywhere else, are more likely to turn out for elections.
Third, instead of laughing about Kim's grotesqueries, shouldn't we also ask about the responsibility we, as the West, have for this situation? This isn't to suggest Kim is blameless and it should be piled up at Washington's door. But this is international relations, and relations tend to have reciprocal effects. The question never asked about Korea's Cold War frontier is the dialectical interplay between either side. The North, for instance, were not the first to deploy nuclear weapons in the peninsular. The Kims are playing catch up. It's not the North that carries out massive annual military exercises designed to intimidate and punish. And it's not the North obstructing a lasting peace settlement - being left alone to repress his people is something the Brilliant Comrade (and all Stalinoid despots) desire most of all.