There’s not much question that North Korea, as headed by Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, is a reckless and irresponsible regime whose abuse of its own people is exceeded only by its self-defeating recklessness toward its neighbors. But from Kim Jong-il’s perspective, it must also be amusing to see just how predictable the United States can be, regardless of what president is in power. He has definitely figured out how to pull our chain.
Whenever the leader of the Hermit Kingdom is feeling unduly ignored, he tests a rudimentary nuclear weapon, fires off a missile or makes a few irresponsible statements, and suddenly he finds himself at the top of everybody’s agenda once again. So in one week he did all three, and sure enough, President Obama blustered that “North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programs pose a great threat to the peace and security of the world,” while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton huffed that there would be “consequences” and trotted off to gather votes for an even sterner UN Security Council resolution than the previous one, which North Korea ignored, and the world forgot.
It would be preferable to step back and view the situation a little more cold-bloodedly. North Korea is a pitiful, isolated, near-irrelevant failure of a country. It has had the wherewithal to build a rudimentary atomic weapon, though not to deliver it, and fire off missiles for years. The recent tests and threats don’t change the strategic balance one bit.
North Korea can bluster, not because it has taken a few steps toward a nuclear weapon, but because it has thousands of artillery guns and conventional missiles aimed at Seoul, South Korea’s capital, less than 35 miles from the north-south border. For that reason, although the infinitely richer and more capable South Korea could probably defeat the North in a war, eventually, it is unlikely to start one. And for the same reason the United States is unlikely to take military action against the North. Because it understands the correlation of forces, North Korea is unlikely to do more than bluster, since it knows that if war came, even though it could wreak great damage on the South, it would be obliterated.
Especially because the United States can do little or nothing to affect North Korea’s behavior, it would be smarter to underreact than overreact. The country with the best ability to influence North Korea is China, which seems more upset at its erstwhile satellite than at other recent provocations. Our best course is to let the Chinese know we are looking to them to handle the problem of that tinpot dictator.