Liddick: Time for a new approach to North Korea
Forget the basketball court. Asia just elbowed the President in the kisser and there’s not going to be a foul called. Welcome to the big league.
So, the crisis du jour is brought to us courtesy of the hermit dictatorship of North Korea. Following a well-recognized pattern, the ailing leader of this deeply paranoid nation has been busily precipitating instability in a region which doesn’t really need more of it. On November 12, the DPRK (that’s North Korea, folks) announced they had been vigorously flouting a nuclear non-proliferation agreement they signed a few years back. Last Tuesday, they shelled a South Korean island in what the commander of U.S. forces in Korea and the Secretary-General of the UN both described as one of the most serious violations of the 1953 cease-fire declaration since that document was signed.
If one doesn’t count the sinking of a South Korean warship by the North last March, that is …
Perhaps the DPRK’s violations are a bargaining ploy. Like petulant children, its leaders make trouble when they want something, and usually they get it by then promising to stop being nasty. Perhaps the North’s actions are precipitated by the transfer of power from Kim Jong-il to his youngest son Kim Jong-un, who needs some experience in the ways of international thuggery. And perhaps there’s more.
In the past, the go-between in negotiations with the DPRK has been China, North Korea’s only real partner and the source of more than 80 percent of its raw materials and energy. They have generally been willing to smooth things over in exchange for tacit recognition from the West that they are preeminent in the region. This time, however, they have taken another tack, remaining neutral in a dangerous game that they might have had a considerable role in creating.
For decades, China has lusted after the Yellow Sea and its resources. They claim a 230-mile-limit “economic zone” in these waters, and have increasingly attempted to exercise sovereign control over them. Tools have included shrill protests about naval exercises in both the Yellow and South China Seas and occasional direct confrontation, as when a Chinese fighter aircraft collided with a U.S. Navy EC-3 in international airspace in 2001.
Now they have an opportunity to change the region’s status quo and send a strategic message, by allowing North Korea’s infamously unstable leadership to ramp up tension through a series of military attacks. Then they denounce “provocative acts” by both the DPRK and the South and its allies – that’s us. En voila! Not only “equivalence” between the charnel house of North Korea and the affluent and relatively democratic South, but a lot more pleading from Washington and maybe a little trimming on our part, too.
We will probably never know why the Pyonyang regime decided to use a South Korean island – or a ship, for that matter – for target practice. And we can only guess at the reason for Beijing’s reticent response. But maybe both boil down to a simple fact: It works.
China’s feral stepchildren in Pyongyang have been able to extort their hearts’ desire from their neighbors by repeatedly threatening the region’s stability. Acquiescence to DPRK demands has been the preferred route largely because of the question of what North Korea has that is valuable enough to threaten in response. However, this has lent a certain circularity to the situation: The DPRK misbehaves, others promise favors in exchange for peace, there is brief tranquility, and then the pattern repeats.
It may be time to try something else. No more requests for intercession from China, which is obviously playing its own game in which its interests are opposed to those of the United States. Let them consider instead what might happen if the DPRK were to finally collapse, with the consequent flood of refugees into a China ill-prepared to receive them.
Instead, implement a strict economic embargo against North Korea. When it was tried last time, it was effective: In 2007, the DPRK’s nuclear program was brought to a halt when officials froze select Banco Delta Asia accounts in Macao. Pyongyang returned to the bargaining table shortly thereafter.
Restate our commitment to the security of both Japan and South Korea, perhaps coupled with an offer of a reworked regional anti-missile defense, and additional Aegis systems to the latter state, at a minimum. Work with the Japanese to make sure that, even in light of North Korean provocations, they remain non-nuclear.
Yes, it’s complicated. Stricter measures may yet be called for. And our leaders better wise up to the fact that to come out ahead in Asia, they better bring their “A” game.
Elbows and all.
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