North Korea’s saber-rattling has become too provocative and too ominous to ignore. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel acknowledged as much last week, declaring that the escalating threats emanating from the Stalinist country represent a “real and clear danger” to the world.
Those threats are enough to rattle anyone’s nerves: Virtual declarations of war against South Korea and a warning that any conflict “will not be limited to a local war, but develop into an all-out war, a nuclear war.” It’s tempting to dismiss this as typical North Korean bluster, another rhetorical outburst from a paranoid regime that habitually employs threats to gain attention and win concessions from friend and foe alike.
What makes this outbreak of nastiness more worrisome is the presence of a young and untested leader, Kim Jong Un, at the fulcrum of power. His inexperience may lead him into a dangerous miscalculation. In addition, North Korea has backed up its angry words with hostile activities designed to underline its nuclear capability.
These include the test launch of an intercontinental missile and carrying out a third apparently successful nuclear test explosion, which brought another round of condemnation and sanctions from the U.N. Security Council. This time, the punitive action won the backing of China, which is increasingly nervous about its ally’s behavior.
North Korea also restarted an old nuclear reactor in the hopes of accumulating more plutonium to add to its nuclear material, now thought to be sufficient for about 10 weapons, and at this writing has announced that it will conduct yet another missile test very soon.
In view of the escalating threat, Secretary Hagel declared that other countries could not stand by idly as North Korea hardens its bellicose stance.
“They have a nuclear capacity now,” he said. “They have a missile delivery capacity now.” Coupled with other hostile moves, he said, North Korea’s activity demands a response.
The resulting actions have included a joint military exercise with South Korea, speeding up the deployment of an advanced missile system to Guam — two years ahead of schedule — sending two Aegis-class missile defense warships into the Pacific to watch North Korea, and conducting practice runs over South Korea by B-2 stealth bombers, F-22 fighter jets, and B-52 bombers.
South Korea has been equally tough. President Park Geun-hye has made it clear she wants peace with North Korea, but won’t cave in to threats.
In the past, South Korea has turned the other cheek when its northern neighbor has carried out warlike activity, but the new South Korean president has ordered her country’s troops to retaliate quickly if the country is the target of an attack.
The aim is to break North Korea’s cycle of provocation. The usual counsel is to avoid a confrontation and look for a diplomatic solution. But that has not produced results in the past — not for long, anyway. North Korea has a malicious pattern of reneging on promises of good behavior after accepting aid from the West.
Appeasement won’t work. At this point, bolstering America’s defensive posture in the Pacific — coupled with affirmative efforts by China to restrain its rogue ally — is the best way to show U.S. resolve and deter the bullies in Pyongyang.
They must be put on notice that they have nothing to gain, and everything to lose, by persisting in their reckless behavior.