After weeks of escalating North Korean provocations, the Obama administration finally responded with a dramatic show of force, flying two massive B-2 stealth bombers over South Korea. The Wall Street Journal gushed that “the extra show of force is exactly the right signal to send. Young Kim needs to understand that starting a war will mean nothing short of his and his regime’s extinction.”
I’m not so sure. The young Kim already knows that he can’t win a general war. Even without our help, South Korea has perhaps 50 times the industrial base of the north, and would cut North Korea’s army to shreds in a matter of days. An ostentatious display of American force may make us feel like we’re doing something. But it doesn’t serve any obvious strategic purpose in the current situation, and might well be counterproductive.
All international relations boil down to some kind of negotiation. So you have to start by asking: What are we negotiating about with the North Koreans? We’re not trying to get them to give up nuclear weapons, because they have already turned down the most lavish inducements imaginable. In any case, Obama’s stealth-bomber run was certainly not meant to increase pressure for denuclearization, because he’s not threatening them on that score.
Right now, the only thing we’re negotiating about with North Korea — unspoken though the negotiation may be — has largely escaped notice. For decades, North Korea’s diplomacy with its neighbors and adversaries has been, very simply, blackmail — under the elaborate cover of denuclearization talks. At every step, we’ve agreed to give North Korea massive assistance, above and beyond humanitarian aid, in exchange for little more than the tacit promise that they won’t use their nukes or transfer them to others. The Obama administration, under the sway of a strong Pacific Command and a secretary of state (Hillary Clinton) who was in the room when her husband fell for North Korea’s bluffs, has largely ignored North Korea. That is generally the right response to blackmail.
North Korea’s recent belligerence is almost certainly the opening gambit of another round of nuclear blackmail. So what does it want? The consensus among Korea watchers has long been that Pyongyang’s first priority is the survival of the regime, and its second priority is to win the Korean War at long last by reunifying the whole peninsula under its leadership. Reunification on its terms has been the whole justification for its “military first” resource-allocation strategy since the early 1960s, a policy that has exacted untold privations on its population.
Nuclear weapons give North Korea an impregnable strategic defense, but that’s not enough for the regime to survive. It also needs money, and the country is an economic basket case. International sanctions, especially U.S. Treasury sanctions, have constricted North Korea’s ability to get money from the sale of missiles, counterfeit cigarettes, counterfeit dollars, and other contraband — long its main sources of income. It may be reaching a point of desperation where brandishing the threat of war — including nuclear war — is its only way it can get the money that it desperately needs.
Congress needs to be on guard for any administration request for assistance funds for North Korea. Expensive overflights by stealth bombers won’t mean a thing if the administration quietly capitulates to North Korea’s demands.
Pyongyang’s other priority, reunification of the peninsula on its terms, is a fantasy, of course. But it’s possible that the ambitious young Kim (he’s only about 30 years old) believes his own propaganda about inevitable victory and sees himself as the leader who will finally cow South Korea into submission.
That creates a potentially dangerous situation, and the right course is obviously to hold firm and stare them down. The joint U.S.–South Korea military exercises are good chiefly because they ensure the readiness of South Korean forces and the effectiveness of our joint-operations capability. But overt displays of force beyond that will only induce North Korea to escalate further. In that sense, the stealth-bomber display may well be counterproductive.
The time for an ostentatious show of force in Korea was in the early 1990s, when its nuclear program could still be stopped. The only course that’s open to us now is to avoid giving in to blackmail while hoping that the inevitable demise of the regime comes sooner rather than later, and without a major upheaval.
Rather than oblige North Korean propaganda with tit-for-tat demonstrations that serve no strategic purpose, the more prudent response is to yawn and think about something else.