It’s been a banner couple of days for the government of North Korea. First, they revealed a new light water reactor and a fully-fashioned nuclear complex to process more weapons-grade uranium. Then they fired hundreds of rounds of artillery shells at South Korea, killing two people and wounding 18. This would be considered an act of war if anyone in the international community dared say so.
The aggressiveness may come from the brittle vulnerability of a despotic regime reeling from a catastrophic economic program (they recently invalidated their own currency in an effort to stanch black marketeering) and leadership transition (a family business, ruining their country). But these are not problems our policy should cower from, they are opportunities to help topple a genuinely evil government.
For the past decade, the government of South Korea has tried to appease. That ended when the DPRK sunk a South Korean navy ship earlier this year. South Koreans may feel a kinship to their suffering countrymen in the North, they worry about the economic burden of a rapid unification, and they are hesitant to be strident when their capitol city lies in artillery range of North Korean troops. But even the accommodationist South Koreans have had enough. South Korea fired back by artillery and scrambled fighter planes. Their defense officials have suggested redeploying U.S. nuclear weapons (they were withdrawn in the euphoria of 1991, when all these cold war problems were going away).
It is not enough to ignore the North Koreans (as a Clinton era National Security Council diplomat recently advocated). And U.S. actions will be constrained by what South Koreans wants – as we should be when an ally faces such dangers. But neither North Korea’s nuclear breakout or its act of war attacking South Korean territory should be allowed to stand.
The White House did, at least, call on North Korea to “halt its belligerent actions.” And they backed up the South Koreans during the UN investigation of the earlier attack. But that is not nearly enough. This North Korean government is an increasing danger to us, to South Korea, and to its own people. We should be engaged in undercutting its ability to control its country.
Sanctions on materials for the nuclear program and individuals involved with it should, of course, remain; but lifting all other sanctions and aggressively undercutting North Korea’s economic and political control would threaten the regime much more than our stately dance of Six Party Talks.
Espionage has, thankfully, come back into fashion, as the stuxnet computer worm that’s disrupting the Iranian nuclear program shows. We should be destroying the North Korean laboratories and weapons by subterfuge. We need to rethink our strategy so that the DPRK government has to expend its energies preventing its starving population from surviving on the (let us hope American flag marked) kindness of strangers.