May 29, 2009
Last month they began testing their long-range ballistic missiles, and as May comes to a close North Korea is engaged in a rapid "break out" of its nuclear weapons capability. Last weekend they conducted a nuclear explosive test, though it is uncertain whether it was successful or not. They followed that up by launching a series of missiles, defying the outside world (or more specifically, the United States) to try to stop them. Predictably, the Obama administration reacted by denouncing the actions as a violation of international law, but it is uncertain whether this matters to any of the leading world powers. Likewise, his call for renewed international sanctions is incredibly hollow, and North Korean leaders must be laughing their heads off at that. Nevertheless, the mere suggestion that cargo vessels heading to or from North Korea may be subject to inspection was enough to elicit an even more aggressive gesture by the Pyongyang regime. They threatened to a attack South Korea if ships from the North are searched, and declared that the 1953 truce that ended the Korean War was no longer valid. U.S. and South Korean forces went on a heightened state of alert. See Washington Post.
Technically, North Korea's abrogation of the 1953 truce means that a state of war now exists, but this is a formal, legalistic status that does not necessarily mean that armed hostilities are imminent. It is almost certainly calculated to have a psychological effect that, they hope, will blackmail the U.S. government and others to fork over a large amount of economic resources as the price of peace. We should not get complacent over North Korea's annoying habit of nuclear brinksmanship, however, as the possibility remains that Kim Jong-Il may be under the delusion that he can outwit the United States and seize control of South Korea before we are able to respond. North Korea's armed forces are among the largest in the world, though much of their equipment is outdated. Also, their logistical capacity to sustain a large-scale conventional offensive in a high-intensity combat environment is highly questionable. Many thousands of its people are, or were until recently, so badly undernourished that disease and mortality are rising to dangerous levels. Since the Korean War ended, the northern half of the Korean peninsula has remained a Spartan armed camp, with a brainwashed population and fanatical cadre of leaders. They can't keep this up forever, and it's possible that as Kim Jong-Il gets older and frailer, he may be tempted to go out in a blaze of "glory."
During the campaign last fall, Joe Biden warned in unequivocal terms that there would be an international crisis in the first several months of an Obama administration, as foreign rogue leaders test the new president's willpower and nerve. Obama's statements on North Korea and other world crisis areas often gives the impression of extreme naivete, but he is shrewd enough of a politician to grasp the challenge he faces. So, even though his dovish approach is inviting an international crisis, and even though he will probably waste more time trying to persuade other countries to cooperate in imposing sanctions on North Korea, I would expect that he would make sure that U.S. vital interests are protected. Like John F. Kennedy in the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, Obama may be wet behind the ears, but he's no pushover.