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Since conducting a third nuclear test in February, North Korea has been escalating its rhetoric and actions ever closer to the brink. Suddenly, the possibility of a second Korean war appears real — except this time nuclear weapons will not be lurking in the distant background, as the ultimate superpower instrument of dissuasion. Such a threat demands prudence, which may be part of the reason why the North feels cocky about its bellicose posture.

Experts have been poring over the details of the latest crisis, predicting that North Korea is threatening to escalate its nuclear capacity to extract concessions. But is this just a bluff? 

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a bluff as "an attempt to deceive someone into believing that one can or is going to do something . . .", which clearly means that it is not the bluffer's intent to engage in such action — just leverage a credible threat to influence his opponent's behaviour. Readers may know, by the time this column hits the newsstands, whether North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, is bluffing.

They may also have had a chance to validate all the theories about whether he is young and untested or manipulated by family members or regime hardliners.

One should note that, when his much more seasoned father, Kim Jong-il, was still alive and in charge, the North Koreans "bluffed" their way to bombing South Korea's Yeonpyeong island in November 2010, killing four civilians, and risking war. The bluff, if there ever was one, must have involved the North Koreans believing they had at least four aces in their hands then, because had the West called the bluff and responded in kind, war would have very likely ensued.

This, then, must be the working assumption of Western policymakers confronting the North Korean menace. Regardless of the behind-the-scenes machinations, and who is really in charge, if a country like North Korea takes the steps it already has — abrogating the armistice, shutting down the hotline, threatening missile strikes and deploying forces — they are not just bluffing. They are prepared to follow through on their threats — and not in the spirit of the Duchy of Grand Fenwick's hilarious plan to invade the United States, in Leonard Wibberley's satirical Cold War novel The Mouse That Roared.

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