North Korea assaulted its southern neighbor today, its latest act of war against U.S. treaty ally South Korea and fresh on the heels of news of a previously undisclosed uranium-enrichment facility. Last March, North Korea sank a South Korean naval vessel without provocation, killing 46 sailors.
Today’s incident involved sustained shelling of a South Korean island by Pyongyang’s military, and resulted in at least two deaths.
This is likely part of an effort by Kim Jong Il to bring the North Korean military closer to him as he works through the installation of family members to surround him in power and eventually succeed him. It is also North Korea’s tried-and-true method of scaring us back to the negotiating table, where Pyongyang has gotten so much largesse over the years in exchange for false promises to disarm.
The response taking shape in Washington is insufficient.
Obama administration officials reportedly said this morning that “no one is interested in escalating this.” This is not necessarily true, as North Korea also gets a vote in escalation. It also ignored the fact that the ball has been placed in our court by North Korea, and that there are consequences to taking no action.
On Sunday, Joints Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mullen, reacting to the uranium facility news, remarked “A great part of this, I think, will have to be done through Beijing.” But history has already told us, repeatedly, that the Chinese government will not be helpful on North Korea.
China gives lip-service to reducing Pyongyang’s misbehavior, but has never turned the screws on its ally and client state, preferring it to any democratic alternative. Never has China halted trade or other assistance to Pyongyang for a sustained period of time. Any allied policy based on Chinese government cooperation, such as that implied by Mullen, is destined to fail.
Finally, traveling to East Asia to consult with our allies and with Beijing, the Envoy for North Korean issues Stephen Bosworth remarked: “This is not a crisis.” But if repeated acts of war and a nuclear evolution by the world’s premier weapons proliferator is not a crisis, then what is?
The Obama administration lacks a coherent strategy. Instead, U.S. diplomats have prided themselves on not reacting to North Korean provocation. While this is better than the appeasement of North Korea that took place in the later years of the Bush administration under Condoleezza Rice, and before that under the Clinton administration, it is hardly a sufficient response to a clear and present danger.
The U.S. needs to get back to basics in dealing with North Korea.
First and foremost, we need to work primarily with our democratic allies in the region to fashion a response to a problem that is getting worse. This means avoiding hope-based engagement with Beijing and its ‘Lucy-with-the-football’ duplicity on North Korea. Instead, we should devise a new strategy with South Korea, Japan and Australia—our key regional allies.
President Obama should ask South Korea to place its forces on alert and order the U.S. military to present him with options for a sustained force buildup and possible retaliatory options that will show the generals in North Korea they are worse off for haven followed Kim Jong Il’s orders.
Most importantly, we should declare our combined allied determination to help the North Korean people free themselves from the world’s most despotic regime—whether it takes 10 weeks or 10 years. We should then put in place a comprehensive political warfare campaign against the regime, centered on financial strangulation and empowering the North Korean people with information and the other key elements of dissent movements.
We should also talk openly to South Korea and Japan about moving U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the region. This is an appropriate response to a growing North Korean nuclear threat. It will also show the Chinese government that the misconduct of its client state also harms Beijing’s security. That, more than blind hope, will get Beijing’s attention.
So far, nothing in Washington’s response indicates any of this is in the making. Instead, the Obama administration is playing it cool. There is a time for that—but this is not one of them. As threats to the U.S. and our allies draw ever nearer, a response from the world’s leading democracy is wanting.
Christian Whiton was a State Department senior advisor in the George W. Bush administration from 2003-2009. He is author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War" (Potomac Books, 2013).