Starting World War III or a second Korean War would not serve any of Pyongyang’s interests. Whether or not it deploys its small but legitimately scary nuclear arsenal, North Korea could indeed cause substantial mayhem in the South, whose capital is mere miles from the border. But the North Korean military is antiquated and inferior; it wouldn’t last long against a U.S.-led counterattack. No matter how badly such a war would go for South Korea or the United States, it would almost certainly end with the regime’s total destruction.
Still, provocations and threats do serve Pyongyang’s interests, even if no one takes those threats very seriously. It helps to rally North Koreans, particularly the all-important military, behind the leader who has done so much to impoverish them. It also helps Pyongyang to control the regional politics that should otherwise be so hostile to its interests.