The Skeptics

A Bad Korean Menu

 The North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il is evidently impatient. Having received few benefits and little attention from the West in recent months, Pyongyang bombarded a South Korean island, killing four people. But impatience is rising in the United States as well. Americans frustrated with the North’s continuing misbehavior are looking for new solutions. Some analysts see military action as the right remedy. 

The Korean peninsula’s division was forged in war. Two hostile regimes arose after the United States and Soviet Union divided the former colony into separate occupation zones. The Korean War, in which roughly two million people died, created a bloody gulf between the two states.

Despite occasional efforts to negotiate with Washington, Seoul and Tokyo, Pyongyang has perfected a policy of brinkmanship. North Korea routinely has created a crisis to raise tensions, only to then offer talks in exchange for benefits of one or another. This strategy worked particularly well when the Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun governments generously subsidized the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea as part of the Sunshine Policy.

However, South Koreans eventually ran out of patience with the North, which repaid aid with obloquy and hostility, capped by acts of war this year. President Lee Myung-bak ended the subsidies when he took office two years ago.

Tokyo essentially dropped engagement as a policy when Pyongyang refused to come clean on its kidnapping of Japanese citizens over the years. Talks over recognition and aid collapsed.

American officials are no less frustrated. The Bush administration swung wildly between refusing to acknowledge North Korea’s existence to enthusiastic engagement. The result was the same: no change in the DPRK’s behavior. The Obama administration sought to put the North on the backburner, but Kim’s nuclear test in 2009 and military provocations this year made that impossible.

Now the situation is increasingly dangerous. Pyongyang was willing to risk war by sinking a South Korean naval vessel and shelling an island occupied by civilians. Although citizens of the Republic of Korea were strangely quiescent after the ship attack, they erupted when South Korean territory was targeted. President Lee is under enormous pressure to respond vigorously to any new DPRK provocation. No one wants war, but mistake or miscalculation could easily trigger a serious crisis, if not widespread conflict.

Throughout the Cold War, America’s overriding objective was to protect South Korea’s independence. The United States succeeded, repelling the North Korean invasion and deterring any renewal of hostilities. In recent years the ROK has raced past North Korea in every measure of national power other than military force, and any deficiencies in the latter are a matter of choice. The South has had no need to further close that gap since it could rely on American protection.

Washington made one attempt to liberate the North, after allied forces had reversed the North Korean invasion in late 1950. But Chinese intervention resulted in two and a half more years of war and military stalemate. Now liberation has reemerged as a possible objective, given the allies’ overwhelming military superiority and China’s presumed willingness to leave the DPRK to its fate in another conflict.

For instance, Jonah Goldberg broached the topic in a confused column entitled “Save the North Koreans!” which called regime change “the only conceivable remedy for North Korea’s plight.” But Goldberg then backed away from calling for military action.

Writer William Tucker recently urged a joint U.S.-China invasion: “They come in from the north, we come in from the south.” Then ten years of joint occupation, after which American forces come home. It brings to mind the proposal a few years back from author Bruce Gilley that Beijing do the fighting while “The United States and its allies in Asia should provide diplomatic and logistical support to the operation, while the U.N. should provide its legal blessing.”

Most serious is Michael Mazza of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank noted for backing aggressive military policies. He called for “a campaign to steadily reduce North Korea’s ability to conduct military operations outside of its borders.” Targets would include missiles, artillery positions along the demilitarized zone, submarine berths, and possibly nuclear facilities.

In Mazza’s view such attacks obviously would degrade the DPRK’s ability to project force and discourage Kim Jong Il from future assaults. Moreover, “The campaign might also make Beijing—sure to be distressed by the projection of U.S. military power so close to its borders—reconsider its never-faltering support for the Kim regime.” Although Kim could decide “let’s roll,” as a rational actor, Mazza argues, the Dear Leader likely would do nothing lest he lose any ensuing war.

In truth, regime change is the only sure answer to Pyongyang’s human-rights violations and military provocations. But the same could have been said for the Soviet Union, Maoist China, and a host of communist and other authoritarian states around the globe. Unfortunately, the price of intervening in those nations also would have been unacceptably high.

As the United States has learned in Iraq, even “easy” military victories come with a high price, especially to the people being liberated. Washington lit the fuse of a conflict which has killed tens or hundreds of thousands of people, and is not yet over. Nor are the consequences of destabilizing an already tense region yet concluded.