This weekend, North Korea significantly increased its forward deployed artillery units and sent around 50 attack submarines out to sea. The submarine movement is especially interesting, because it’s not easy for North Korea to deploy subs; they are poorly maintained and expensive for the resource-starved regime to operate. In deploying so many simultaneously, North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, clearly wants to make a point.
Still, it’s not as if this latest escalation was a complete surprise. As I argued after a March attack on the U.S. ambassador to Seoul, “North Korea is the Oceania of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: introverted and paranoid, just with less food and smaller televisions.” The North Korean regime’s structural failings reinforce its confrontational strategy. But with the Obama administration so focused on securing its Iran nuclear deal, Pyongyang hasn’t been getting the attention it craves. And since March, tensions on the Korean peninsula have steadily increased, spurred by North Korean missile tests and a missile test in response by the South.
American carrier strike groups have the power to deter North Korean military action and could sail to the peninsula on short notice.
Of course, there’s one major catch. China. With Chinese leader Xi Jinping increasingly aggressive assaults on the cyber, economic, and territorial fronts, it’s unclear what pressure his government will now put on the North. And although China’s influence is sometimes overestimated, history has proven that the best and safest way to put the Kim dynasty back in its box is for Beijing to pick up the phone and call Pyongyang.