The threats from Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s young, untested leader, are extreme even by the paranoid standards of the dynastic dictatorship that has led the country since 1945.
Kim’s bellicosity is likely intended to consolidate domestic political and military standing, as well as to extricate concessions from a wary, weary global community. Even so, a military miscalculation could plunge the region into war. The global community must take the threats seriously and apply maximum pressure on North Korea to defuse the crisis.
Kim has stated that the two Koreas had reverted to a “state of war” and has severed military “hot lines” with South Korea. He hasn’t stopped with South Korea, however: He has directly threatened the American mainland and U.S. military bases in Japan and Guam.
Most gravely, in February North Korea conducted its third nuclear test. That provocation triggered the United Nations Security Council to impose further economic sanctions. It’s significant that China, North Korea’s only ostensible ally, agreed to the sanctions. This suggests that even Beijing is tiring of Pyongyang’s destabilizing provocations. But it also seems to suggest that China fears a refugee crisis, or U.S. bases on its border, more than it fears Kim’s reckless, repressive regime continuing to lurch the region into crises.
For their parts, South Korea and the United States have been unusually public with their responses.
South Korea, which also has a new, untested leader, has made it clear it won’t ignore North Korean aggression. Addressing South Korean generals, President Park Geun-hye stated that, “If the North attempts any provocation against our people and country, you must respond strongly at the first contact with them without any political consideration.”
The United States has been conducting joint exercises with the South Korean military that have included a very public display of nuclear-capable B-2 bombers, as well as B-52 bombers and stealth fighter jets. Additional naval vessels have also been deployed.
This public posture shouldn’t suggest that a diplomatic solution still isn’t being sought, South Korean and U.S. diplomats suggested in a recent meeting with an editorial writer. South Korea’s new government seeks to emphasize “trust-based relations on the Korean peninsula. So what we would eventually like is for the North Koreans to stop the aggressions so we can engage them,” said Choi Dayoun, second secretary of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in Washington.
The desire for diplomatic engagement was echoed by Heather L. Dresser, Korea desk officer at the State Department. “Our overall objective regarding North Korea has not changed: It involves denuclearization of the peninsula on a peaceful basis,” she said.
That won’t be easy. On Tuesday, North Korea announced that it will restart a reactor that had gone dark as part of a 2007 disarmament deal. That followed Sunday’s statement from North Korea that its nuclear weapons “are neither a political bargaining chip nor a thing for economic dealings.”
But eventually they must be just that. Even the unpredictable Kim can predict that if he ever deployed a nuclear weapon, it would result in the end of his regime.
Yet North Korea need not use a nuclear weapon to attack. It could use conventional missiles against Seoul, and maybe even Japan. And the North has shown a willingness to engage in asymmetrical warfare. It’s widely assumed the country was behind a recent cyberattack on South Korean banks and broadcasters.
U.S. leaders have little intelligence on Kim. (Dennis Rodman may have had the most face time.) And they have few good choices.
“Our options are seriously limited here,” said Sherry Gray, coordinator of the global policy area at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. “You try to get the North Koreans to the table; you try to get the rhetoric down; you try to open dialogue; you try to solidify your allies, and you try to get China engaged.”
Indeed, China is the one nation that may be able to reverse Kim’s course and get Pyongyang to re-engage in the six-party talks involving North and South Korea, the United States, Japan, China and Russia. Or, since this crisis has global implications, take up U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on his Tuesday call for negotiations. One of Kim’s clear goals seems to be bilateral dialogue with the United States, but a multilateral approach is needed to contain the North’s nuclear ambitions.
Militarily, U.S. forces must be prepared to defend American interests and allies. This crisis also underscores the benefits of continually developing an effective missile-shield defense system.
Most important, while it’s important to show resolve, the United States and South Korea need to continue to be strategic and not let Kim’s provocations spark a dangerous confrontation.