North Korea’s unprovoked shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, following less than a year after the sinking of that country’s frigate Cheonan, is a surprise but not an unexpected one. These seeming random acts of violence are an integral part of the North’s approach to negotiations. For years Pyongyang was able to use the threat of a conventional attack on Seoul behind which it could engage in a strategy of calculated brinksmanship. As the latest incidents demonstrate, its acquisition of nuclear weapons has only emboldened the North. First, North Korea allows a U.S. nuclear scientist to see a new, formerly secret, uranium enrichment facility, openly demonstrating that it is in violation of the agreed framework which was supposed to halt its nuclear program. Then it shells South Korean civilians. Next it will demand the major parties in the region return to negotiations on its terms.
Insanity is commonly defined as performing the same actions over and over again while expecting a different result. By this definition the world response to North Korea’s actions is the epitome of insanity. It makes even less sense, if that is possible, given the current behavior of other would-be proliferators such as Iran and Syria. The lesson North Korea provides is that possession of a nuclear weapon is the proverbial “get out of jail free” card. Because the regime in Tehran sees itself like Pyongyang as besieged by the U.S., it is likely to interpret Washington’s lack of backbone when it comes to North Korea’s aggression as our likely behavior if Iran gets the Bomb.
Experts on North Korea of every political stripe bemoan the lack of good options and resign themselves to a continuation of the current policy of positive reinforcement for North Korea’s hostile acts. They claim, on the one hand, that the regime is on its last legs, weak and crazy but, on the other hand, they also assert that it could survive for decades and pursues a clever strategy designed to exploit its few advantages to acquire the aid that will prolong its existence. Well, which is it, crazy or clever as a fox? If North Korea is on its last legs, perhaps the world can afford to appease it for a little while longer. But does anyone think that the world can safely tolerate Pyongyang’s attack and retreat strategy for another couple of decades?
Pyongyang’s goal appears to be to force the world, but really the United States, to accept it status as a nuclear power. If the Obama Administration caves into this demand, it will mean the absolute end of the President’s goal of global denuclearization. Indeed, the recent attack led the government of South Korea to request the return of tactical nuclear weapons to the peninsula. But at the same time, if the Administration maintains the insanity of continuing current policy, it can expect more aggressive acts by Pyongyang, one of which could trigger a major war.
Moreover, North Korea’s ability to get away with naked aggression because of its nuclear shield provides a template for what the world will be like if Iran and Syria acquire nuclear weapons. Both these states will be tempted beyond restraint to exploit their perceived nuclear shield to conduct acts of aggression and intimidation against their neighbors. Does anyone familiar with the environment in the Middle East believe that the consequences of such acts will not be a nuclear war in that region?
Sending the George Washington battle group to conduct exercises with South Korea is a modest step at best. A better move would be to reinforce U.S. forces in the region with additional Patriot missile batteries, F-22 air superiority aircraft and long-range strike systems. Announcing the deployment of a couple of SSGNs that can fire several hundred cruise missiles would be another useful signal. It is time to confront Pyongyang with the reality that its actions and not those of the West risk the very survival of that regime. This is a message that will be picked up in Teheran and Damascus.
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