The 55-Minute North Korea Freak-Out

Last night's bizarre episode was a reminder that North Korea's unpredictability and inscrutability are a large part of what make it so dangerous.

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Kim Jong Un holds up his ballot at a Pyongyang party conference. (Reuters).

How frightened was the world at North Korea's out-of-nowhere declaration, at 10:05 p.m. EST last night, that it would issue a rare "important announcement" for the globe at noon local time, less than one hour later? Consider these two immediate reactions: the South Korean currency, the won, dipped in value on global markets, and the Korean Institute of Geoscience and Mineral Resources checked for seismic activity that might follow a nuclear explosion. They found none, but the mere fact that they looked -- and that their check-in was reported by international news wires -- showed how seriously everyone was taking this "announcement."

There was good reason to be worried. Not of any specific threat, but of the uncertainty itself. North Korea is notoriously unpredictable and notoriously belligerent, at times attacking South Korean villages for no apparent reason. It has started and re-started its nuclear program out of the blue. There's often no real way to predict the country's behavior, but past experience shows that it's seldom good news when the Hermit Kingdom comes out of its shell.

And North Korea's internal politics, or what little we know of them, had recently appeared distressingly unstable. Just two days earlier, Kim Jong Un had dismissed a powerful military leader, Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho. Ri had been close to Kim Jong Il, had helped oversee the transition to his son's rule, and was considered a lynchpin in balancing power between Kim Jong Un and the powerful military. His mysterious purge from leadership is flabbergasting, but whatever it means, some degree of at least short-term instability seems all but inevitable.

Meanwhile, as those 55 minutes were ticking away, keep in mind that North Korea is the most militarized society on earth, that its economy and political system have seemed near collapse for decades, and that it sits between China, South Korea, and Japan, three countries with massive militaries of their own, two of them including large U.S. military bases.

So, when the clock struck 12, Pyongyang time, everyone who might have been watching (if you were among them, odds are good that you live in East Asia) held their breath. And, well, it wasn't much. "Kim Jong Un Given Marshall Title," announced the first Korean newswire reports. The "marshall" is the chief of the North Korean military, although so is the "supreme commander," a position Kim already holds. In other words, the leader of North Korea was giving himself yet another fancy title that described that job that everyone already knows he has.

It was not the nuclear armageddon that we might have feared. But, like so many things in North Korea (the New York Times recently explained the very real geopolitical implications of rising hemlines on North Korean skirts), outwardly small moves can indicate much larger forces beneath the surface. Some analysts saw this as an effort to demonstrate political control over the powerful military, some as preempting possible "unrest" within the military or even signalling that such unrest had been quelled, or even as a "lagging indicator of internal conflict."

Those all sound plausible, but in truth the world just doesn't know for sure. Just like we don't know whether North Korea is planning to restart its nuclear program, why it shelled a peaceful South Korean island out of nowhere in late 2010, or why it sank a South Korean navy ship, killing 46 people. It's always 55 minutes to noon with North Korea, and no one knows if the next "important announcement" will be unintentionally funny or intentionally horrific.