North Korea Attacks South Korea
Previously published on Dec 1, 2010
Thanksgiving 2010 for 28,500 US servicemen stationed in South Korea passed uneasily after the North Korean bombing of Yeonpyeong Island days before. Although the first major lethal exchange of firepower between the warring nations in decades, Pyongyang has been testing its limits more and more over the past few months since the sinking of a South Korean warship in March. With the attack coming less than a week after the communist regime revealed its extremely sophisticated, massive Yongbyon uranium enrichment facility, the North's claim that this incident was simply a response to South Korea's offshore naval exercises was clearly far from the truth.
North Korea has a long history of playing games with the International Community where the communist nation provokes South Korea then uses its willingness to behave erratically and irrationally to force the world to pay attention to its demands under the guise of negotiations. The rogue nation then promises to behave if its demands are met before slowly reverting back to its old ways. While the North has devoted much of its seriously limited resources to bulk up its military stature, the nuclear technology it acquired a few years ago allows the pretentious, yet insecure, country to have real clout at the negotiating table.
The psychology of the totalitarian regime is interesting, because Kim Jon-il must grasp the reality that his nation cannot directly compete with the US, China, or even South Korea, yet purports a national philosophy based on North Korea's supremacy. At the same time, North Korea can only exist as a functioning nation-state due to China's support, as well as international humanitarian aid. Consequently, there are some who believe North Korea uses its bad behavior to gain leverage in order to develop a better relationship with the West, so it can lessen China's influence. Of course, this model requires a rational leadership and may well simply be wishful thinking on behalf of policy analysts facing few to no real options for containing North Korea.
Certainly, North Korea desires to be as mighty as the self-image it tries to project suggests; however, achieving greater status on the global field through cooperation is likely seen by North Koreans as a path followed by the weak and foolish. Under China's boot, Pyongyang cannot be mighty, but nor can it be mightiest if it plays by the rules of the West. This means North Korea has every reason to exploit the weaknesses of the International Community, i.e. our desire to create stability and avoid nuclear fallout. As such, it is actually in North Korea's perceived interests to antagonize its neighbors and slowly defy its boundaries until the world is forced to respond to every whim of the communist regime.
The only effective response to the escalating provocations of North Korea is to establish firm boundaries by responding in kind. Accordingly, South Korea's military response, as well as US support and its show of force through joined military exercise, is absolutely necessary. Without such actions, Pyongyang will continue bullying South Korea, especially since Kim Jon-il's son needs to demonstrate his strength as an unknown, uncertain leader. The future leader's foreign policy will be finalized based on what he perceives his regime can and should do without real consequences. Despite threats of nuclear or conventional war, these consequences must come from South Korea and its allies, but China, which has only begun to show a need to address North Korea's behavior, needs to punish Pyongyang's negative behavior toward its neighbor.
Without a close ally like China, which is truly North Korea's only friend in the region, intervening, the violent escalation of the ongoing military conflict is far more likely. Given the weak influence of economic sanctions, the sole course of action for South Korea, and the rest of the International Community, is to engage in counterstrikes when provoked. Of course, China also needs to take serious action, such as treating to impose its own economic sanctions or plainly stating China will be at war with any nation that uses nuclear weapons in Asia. Unfortunately, it appears China's leadership has yet to mature in terms of its foreign policy, such that it cannot rule its own sphere of influence. Moreover, it is clear what South Korea, the US, and the International Community must do to put North Korea in its place, but it is up to China to prevent an impending conflict from materializing.