Last week, North and South Korea traded artillery fire and accusations across their border, demonstrating yet again the fragility of their 60-year-old truce. The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea initiated the incident, and it underlined the potential seriousness of any escalation by deploying more than 50 submarines (70 percent of its total), and massing artillery near the De-Militarized Zone (DMZ), according to South Korea.
A soldier stands guard in front of the Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket
sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a
guided media tour by North Korean authorities in the northwest of
Pyongyang, April 8, 2012. Reuters
High-level talks between the two Koreas restored calm, at least
superficially and temporarily. Nonetheless, the United States should
recognize that strategic interests far more important than just another
military confrontation across the DMZ may be at stake here. This affair
might well be a ploy by the North to con Washington into negotiations
like those that recently led to the disastrous nuclear deal with Iran.
What better way than to create an artificial crisis, and then lure
America to the bargaining table?
Whatever the outcome of
Pyongyang’s latest gambit, America cannot underestimate the seriousness
of the risks involved if these repeated provocations ever escalated into
a serious military confrontation. These are not merely echoes from the
1953 truce; their regularity underlines the North’s continuing menace.
In 2010, North Korea, in a completely unprovoked attack, sank a South
Korean corvette, the Cheonan, with a loss of 46 crew members. Random
cross-border attacks over the years have resulted in killing many
As deadly as renewed military hostilities on
the Korean Peninsula would be, the real focus of U.S. attention should
be on the North’s growing nuclear-weapons and ballistic-missile
capabilities. In April, China estimated that the North had 20 nuclear
warheads, and could double that number by next year. This estimate can
hardly be called alarmist, because Beijing is Pyongyang’s only real ally
in the world, and is hardly a potential target. And the North’s three
nuclear tests and its expanding nuclear infrastructure have all been
successfully undertaken despite decades of U.S. and international
What does worry Beijing, and should worry Washington more, is the
potential for Pyongyang’s growing nuclear arsenal to destabilize East
Asia, including provoking a regional nuclear arms race. South Korea’s
defense ministry and the U.S. force commander there already estimate
that the North is rapidly moving toward a warhead-sized nuclear device
that, mounted on one of its ballistic missiles, could reach America’s
West Coast in the near future.
And yet, official Washington is all
but asleep on the North Korean threat. President Obama, despite his
much-touted “pivot” from the Middle East, rarely pays it much attention.
Indeed, the “pivot” itself has faded from view. The 2016 presidential
candidates have yet to address the issue seriously. Even West Coast
politicians, whose constituents should worry about Obama’s gutting of
America’s missile-defense program, seem uninterested.
Worse than U.S. inattention,
however, is the risk that in the Obama administration’s waning days the
president and Secretary of State John Kerry may conclude they have one
more glorious negotiation left in them. Fresh from signing the Vienna
agreement regarding Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, they may try again
with North Korea. Although the American public, by increasingly large
margins, rejects the Vienna deal, the administration seems poised to
secure the votes it needs to preserve it from congressional opposition.
may have the same negotiation scenario in mind, although for exactly
opposite reasons. Kim Jong Un likely sees Iran’s diplomatic triumph in
Vienna for what it was: a determined, persistent nuclear weapons
aspirant, aided politically by Russia and China, was able to grind down a
weak and credulous American president. Using a sustained campaign of
threats, falsehoods and stubbornness, Tehran achieved all its strategic
objectives in the negotiations with the Security Council’s five
permanent members and Germany.
North Korea could well conclude it can accomplish precisely the same
objective. After all, that kind of diplomacy has been its trademark
since the Korean War. Kim’s biggest problem is that Obama’s term would
end before Pyongyang could extract all the concessions it desired. So,
if Pyongyang wanted to find a way to initiate negotiations quickly, what
better way than to start off with a military provocation along the DMZ?
presidential candidates nor congressional leaders can stop Obama from
pursuing yet another illusory diplomatic “triumph” as a second-term
legacy. But sober analysts should do whatever they can to prevent the
Obama White House from making still more concessions to a dictatorial
regime that, based on its entire history, has no intention of keeping
its side of any bargain. This is very dangerous terrain, far more
serious than merely exchanging artillery fire.