This time, things could be very, very different with North Korea

The rites of spring are: daylight savings time... cherry blossoms and daffodils… and another North Korean military crisis.

Every year, come spring, the North Korean people run low on their stocks of food, fuel and fear.

Their leaders manage the situation by manufacturing a crisis. They threaten war, their people forget about hardships to rally round the flag, and the world trembles.

Everyone agrees to consultations, the North Koreans get assistance, and the crisis is averted….until the same time next year.

The annual North Korean display of braggadocio and brinksmanship is so predictable you can practically set your iCalendar to auto-renew.

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But this year, things could well be different, and events could spiral out of control quickly, and fatally.


First, this year all the major players in the game are new. The new twenty-something North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, has little experience in crisis management outside of his beloved video games.

The new leaders in South Korea, Japan and China have been in office for a scant few weeks, and all are thought to be hawkish on defense issues.

The new Secretaries of State and Defense have their hands full with the Middle East, Afghanistan and defense cuts.

The situation in the Korean Peninsula is at a hair trigger, and a slight miscalculation on the part of any of these players could lead to a rapid unraveling.

Second, North Korea is now, in effect, a nuclear weapons state and it has emboldened them. North Korea has successfully tested nuclear weapons, probably of both the plutonium and highly enriched uranium varieties. While they don’t yet have missiles capable of reaching the Continental U.S., nor nuclear weapons small enough to fit on the tip of those missiles, it’s only a matter of time before they do.

Kim Jong Un has shown he’s so reckless he shouldn’t even be allowed to play with matches, yet he is on the verge of getting nuclear weapons. The closer he is to having those weapons, the further away he will be from backing down in a crisis.

One thing recent history has shown, countries with nuclear weapons don’t get attacked (Pakistan). Countries which give up their nuclear weapons do (Libya and Iraq).

Kim may be young and inexperienced but he’s probably figured out that lesson.

Third, the US has stationed nearly 30,000 troops on the Korean border since the 1950’s to serve as a tripwire for any North Korean aggression. The message to North Korea is, “you want to mess with South Korea? You’ve got to get past us first.”

This has deterred North Korean adventurism and kept the peace for over 50 years. But as technology has advanced, it has made for a hair-triggered tripwire.

The Demilitarized Zone between the two Koreas is about the width of New York’s Central Park. A North Korean missile can reach South Korea’s capital in about a minute. Seoul’s sprawling suburbs are nearly at the North Korean border. If someone does miscalculate, the situation would escalate within hours.

That’s the bad news.

The good news is the Obama administration is taking the threat seriously. So far, they’ve walked the fine line between demonstrating our resolve and not fanning the flames.

They’ve showed our South Korean and Japanese allies that we stand with them, by continuing with the planned military exercises with some of America’s most advanced weapons.

They’re putting missile defense systems in place of the Korean coast. But they’ve not traded tit-for-tat in response to Kim Jong Un’s extreme sabre rattling.

Whether this crisis gets resolved short of war depends greatly on China’s willingness and ability to rein in North Korea. In the past China has been content to let the situation in Northeast Asia stay at a low boil to keep the South Koreans, the Japanese and Americans off balance. But the situation now threatens to boil over. The calculation for China has changed.

If North Korea continues down this road, Japan could rearm and South Korea decide to go nuclear, especially if they sense a lessening of America’s mutual defense commitment.

If the North Korean regime collapses, millions of poor and malnourished refugees would stream across the border into China stressing an already stressed Chinese economy. China’s recent mobilization at the North Korea border is as much to keep those refugees out as a show of solidarity with North Korea.

If a weakened North Korea unites with South Korea to form the East Asian equivalent of a United Germany – economically powerful, but with a strong, possibility nuclear capable military – would be China’s worst nightmare.

For the first time, China has real incentives for resolving the annual North Korean crisis. There are indications at the United Nations and elsewhere that China is losing patience with North Korea.

It is time for the U.S. and China to reopen a strategic dialogue to deal with a host of issues, especially how to deal with North Korea.

Mao once told my former boss Henry Kissinger, that without the lips the teeth grow cold. He meant that North Korea provided a buffer for Japan and South Korea. Those teeth would grow very cold indeed if the annual Korean crisis is not resolved peacefully.

Even so, no one knows how this will turn out.

North Korea remains the most impenetrable country on the planet, and Kim Jong Un is an inscrutable leader. Know what makes this even scarier? The person who probably has spent more time with Kim and knows him best is his courtside basketball buddy Dennis Rodman.