In many ways North Korea has the psychology of a spoiled child. But where a child throws tantrums, North Korea threatens to throw nuclear weapons. Incidents from the past few years, whether artillery strikes or torpedo attacks, demonstrate its continuing strategy of brinkmanship.
North Korea attempts to use perceptions of its own irrationality to extract concessions. That truth makes today’s assault on Mark Lippert, the U.S. ambassador to Seoul, a wakeup call for the United States.
While the assailant doesn’t appear to have acted under direct orders from the North, North Korea’s reaction has been telling. Kim Jong-un’s government praised the incident (video footage shows its ferocity) as a “knife shower of justice” and “just punishment for U.S. warmongers.” Yet the attacker’s claims that he acted in protest of ongoing U.S.–South Korean military exercises is also key, because those annual exercises, known as Key Resolve and Foal Eagle, are a perpetual cause of fury from the North.
In recent days, North Korean media have warned of looming war. For this reason, U.S. and South Korean intelligence services will work to establish whether North Korea has links to the attacker.
Nevertheless, the present situation is especially precarious because of North Korea’s perception that the U.S. is distracted. As I noted last week, across the planet, the U.S. currently has just one carrier strike group on deployment. The USS George Washington, Seventh Fleet carrier (responsible for North Korea), is on diplomatic reception duty and will shortly return to the United States for upgrades. And while the U.S. has a few destroyers participating in the exercises, George Washington’s absence is noticed in North Korea. That isn’t good. North Korea has always sensed opportunity in U.S. absence. And today, witnessing the Obama administration’s obsession with reaching an Iranian nuclear accord, North Korea may feel it can roll the dice.
While some deride the importance of power-perception dynamics in international relations, the reality is that President Obama’s foreign policy is feeding the aggression of U.S. adversaries and degrading the confidence of U.S. allies. Correspondingly, with Kim Jong-un still cementing his base of power in Pyongyang, the regime is especially unpredictable.
Moreover, we mustn’t ignore the fundamental nature of the North Korean regime. Ultimately, North Korea is the Oceania of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four: introverted and paranoid, just with less food and smaller televisions. And North Korea’s food challenge has strategic ramifications. As the nation faces critical crop shortages this year, experience suggests that the regime is becoming more likely to use threats of conflict to extort food from the international community.
President Obama must be alert to this strategic environment. For a start, he must bolster America’s deterrent posture on the Korean peninsula. And he must ensure that Kim Jong-un understands that his view reaches beyond Iran. When it comes to the North, the stakes are always enriched. We cannot afford to send a signal of weakness.