How do you solve a problem like Korea?
It’s hard to take seriously the leader of a country who was thrilled at meeting that bizarre-looking, publicity-seeking former professional basketball player, Dennis Rodman. But when he has missiles and a nuclear capability, and repeatedly threatens to use them against the United States and its ally South Korea, there isn’t much choice. The Obama administration doesn’t quite know what to make of North Korea’s latest dictator, Kim Jung Un, but it knows it can’t ignore him.
North Korea has been increasingly belligerent with its rhetoric and actions since February, when it tested a nuclear weapon and missiles and the United States and South Korea responded with military drills and support of more U.N. sanctions. It has released amateurish videos showing mock nuclear attacks on Washington, D.C., and New York City (which its missiles are incapable of reaching), and threatened to strike its two enemies. Last week it moved its missiles closer to South Korea, from where they could reach even U.S. military installations on Guam, and advised foreign diplomats to leave the country for their own safety. Tensions in the region are understandably high.
The thinking, and certainly hope, among U.S. military and intelligence officials is that Kim Jung Un is just saber-rattling, as his also erratic father, Kim Jung Il, used to do to get concessions from the United States, such as food, fuel and acceptance of its nuclear program. They also believe he’s trying to prove himself to his own military, who distrust him because of his youth and inexperience.
The trouble is, they just don’t know. Containment works best when one is dealing with rational actors, but that’s not clear with Kim Jung Un. And miscalculations can easily occur on each side when military tensions are high.
For now, the Obama administration is doing about all it can, deploying defensive missile missiles to shoot down any North Korea missiles headed for South Korea, Japan or Guam; cautioning that any response will be proportional to the provocation (whereas provocative acts by the North against South Korea in the past went largely unanswered); and urging China to do more to rein in its ally. What it is not doing, and should not do, is give in to nuclear blackmail.
Obama has said that he would destroy North Korea’s long-range missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons to U.S. soil only if we see that they’re being loaded with nuclear weapons. Others have called on him to destroy those missiles before it comes to that. After this crisis is over, he may want to reconsider his position.