In January 2009, there were giddy expectations in Washington that the U.S. leadership transition from George W. Bush to Barack Obama would lead to dramatic breakthroughs with North Korea. After all, it was explained, the departure of Bush would cause Pyongyang to no longer feel threatened, leading the regime to abandon its oft-relied upon policy of provocations.
Apparently Kim Jong-Il didn’t read the script. Instead, North Korea engaged in a rapid-fire series of provocations in early 2009 including a nuclear test and long-range missile launch. This year has been no less frightening. In March, North Korea sank a South Korean naval ship, killing 46 sailors, in a blatant unprovoked act of war.
On November 23rd, Pyongyang again dangerously escalated tensions by attacking a small South Korea island in the first artillery strike since the Korean War. The island is two miles south of the Northern Limit Line, the disputed maritime boundary off the west coast of Korea which has been the site of several armed clashes during the past decade.
The situation on the Korean Peninsula is now tense but unlikely to lead to war. Seoul will be constrained by all the same factors that hindered a strong South Korean response to the earlier North Korean attack on its naval ship. South Korea fears that even a limited retaliatory attack could escalate into an all-out conflagration.
President Lee Myung-bak called for a “stern response” but also care not to escalate the situation further. As with the naval attack, it shows the limited leverage and response options that Seoul and Washington have on North Korea.
The artillery attack is part of a continuing and dangerously escalating pattern of provocations to force the United States and South Korea to abandon pressure tactics, including sanctions on the regime. Similarly, North Korea’s disclosure of a covert nuclear facility last week sought to force the U.S. and its allies back to the negotiating table by raising fears of an expanding nuclear arsenal.
It is worrisome, if not frightening, how far Pyongyang is now willing to go to achieve its foreign policy objectives. North Korea appears to have abandoned previously self-imposed constraints on its behavior. Although the new brazenness could be related to the ongoing North Korean leadership succession, it may also reflect growing regime desperation brought on by deteriorating economic and political conditions.
Pyongyang’s actions are designed to weaken U.S. and South Korean resolve but will likely have the opposite effect. Washington responded to this weekend’s disclosure of the secret uranium enrichment facility by rejecting calls for a hasty return to the Six Party Talks nuclear negotiations. The U.S. and South Korean governments have properly resisted entreaties to acquiesce to North Korean demands. This, in turn, may very well cause North Korea to do something even more provocative.
Pyongyang is venturing into new territory in its actions. North Korea’s willingness to engage in ever escalating provocative acts has created a tinderbox on the Korean Peninsula with a commensurate growing risk of miscalculation by either side. The earlier naval attack, the revelation of the uranium enrichment facility, and this weeks’s artillery attack shows the previously static situation is unraveling.
Bruce Klingner is Senior Research Fellow, Northeast Asia at The Heritage Foundation.