Technically, the Korean War never ended. There was no peace treaty in 1953. The war (in which Canada was intimately involved) went from hot to cold by tacit understanding. It is a mere ceasefire, and over the decades since, the cold war has been punctuated by cross-border incidents—from live fire to tunnelling—initiated, so far as I can see invariably, by the North.

We have all heard that the vast, incredibly prosperous city of Seoul is within practical firing range of the frontier, with quite old-fashioned technology. You can take a taxi to the frontier, as I once did: it is a short drive, lengthened only by city traffic. More than 20 million people thus live in the shadow of considerable North Korean fire power, trained directly upon them—just as the whole island of Taiwan goes about its business day by day, in the shadow of far more than a thousand Chinese missiles, targeted to wipe out everything.

Just as, since time out of mind, people have lived in the shadow of great volcanoes, known to have erupted within human memory. The soil in such locations is highly fertile. In a strange way, the “spiritual soil” of South Korea is enriched by the presence of this “volcano,” that may suddenly rain down, leaving no hope of escape.

My impression, visiting Korea now a decade ago, was that the zeal and industry of that country—once called the “Hermit Kingdom,” once known for its sleepy aloofness from the world—was partly fuelled by this fear. It had contributed to a kind of alertness that was more than “cultural.”

The North Koreans began gratuitously shelling the South Korean military base on Yeonpyeong Island at 0534 GMT yesterday, killing a couple of marines, injuring more than a dozen soldiers and civilians, and sending the island’s 1,600 fishermen and their families into the shelters. The South Koreans returned fire, which it is their duty to do. We will see what follows.

Pyongyang claims Seoul started it, but that is ridiculous. The South was conducting a well-announced military exercise, in the seas near the island; but all action was purposely directed away from Northern shores. There was no legitimate pretext for the North Korean strike; just as there was no legitimate pretext for the strike last March, in which a South Korean naval vessel was suddenly torpedoed and sent to the bottom, with a few dozen souls.

A fully intentional armed provocation, and to leave no doubt, it followed closely on an unarmed provocation. Over the weekend, we learned that Northern authorities had shown off a new uranium enrichment facility to a visiting U.S. scientist. The West was being told they were capable of building such a thing, quickly and right under our satellite noses. That stunt was intended to make us wonder what else they may have, hidden away, beyond our capacities for detection.

The conventional explanation for these and the many other incidents (including many minor ones that hardly make world news), is that the North Korean Great Leader of the moment, is crazy. I fall into this myself, sometimes—one foot—but then have to explain the difference between medical and moral insanity.

The “completely crazy guy” theory of history explains nothing, and is useless. Hitler was a crazy guy; Stalin was a crazy guy; Pol Pot was a crazy guy—but mad only north-northwest. Often from a desperate position, they played brilliantly, cheated brilliantly.

One does not become a psychotic, totalitarian dictator without knowing all the weaknesses of half-decent folk, including the location of their Achilles heel. Our politicians are willing to appease even a madman, for the sake of peace. And even when peace is unavailable, those with insufficient moral starch will continue appeasing, in the hope of prolonging the appearance of peace.

The current North Korean position is perhaps as desperate as it has ever been. Such indications as we have are of a prison camp in which the people are quite literally starving, and the whole totalitarian infrastructure might be cracking from withdrawal of some foreign aid. The Great Leader of the moment is thought to be ill, and there could be a “succession crisis.” Alternatively, this crisis is being staged, in order to sucker the West into renewing aid, in the belief that a more reasonable leadership may soon emerge.

We cannot know the degree to which the Chinese are supplying whatever is necessary to prop up the regime. We can know that Beijing is using North Korea to advance its own regional and international interests; and that it wouldn’t be so calm if it weren’t party to the stunt.

Do not do what the Chinese suggest; do not make concessions, or agree to talk; ignore “humanitarian” arguments; continue making military preparations. Call the bluff, but be ready for anything.