Turning the Tables on North Korea

The actions of North Korea in sinking a South Korean ship and shelling a remote South Korean island primarily because it was beyond the armistice line are clear violations of the 1953 armistice agreement. North Korea has been lead to believe by the lack of consequences for its bad behavior that it can do largely as it pleases in attempts to further extort financial assistance from a cowering West which seeks to avoid conflict above all else.

There are worse fates than conflict as we know from our history and bullies left unchecked do not generally improve their behavior.

Our hopes that China would see the craziness of North Korea’s behavior and do something—anything—to bring the regime in line has proved not well founded.  China wants to be respected as a great nation and superpower but shrinks from stepping up to the plate to take a proportionate share of responsibility when the world needs it.  While we clearly want to cooperate with China in finding a solution to this problem, we cannot subordinate our own strategic interests to China’s indecision.

Leaving North Korea unchecked is also dangerous because of its export of weapons and mischief to Iran and other bad behaving players around the world proliferating some of the worst weapons to some of the worst threats to global peace and security.

As we have learned before and the Wikileaks remind us again, often it is only the United States that has the capacity to change the game and provide the leadership to solve the world’s biggest problems.

That is what we need to do now.

Gordon Chang writing in the New Asia blog published on Forbes suggests a way to do just that.  He proposes that since North Korea has already asserted that it does not plan to respect the 1953 armistice that the United States should follow suit and declare that it no longer is obligated to the armistice either and is free to take appropriate retaliatory action against North Korea for any violations.  Chang suggests three specific steps that would tilt the playing field back to balance:

1.       Order Financial Freeze on North Korean Assets.  The US Treasury once before punished North Korea by ordering targeted banks used by North Koreas who hope to do business with or in the US to freeze assets and refrain from any transactions involving the North. This truly ticked off Kim Jong-Il and would do the same today especially if expanded much more broadly.

2.       South Korea could close the Kaesong Industrial Complex.  This industrial zone shared between the Korea’s was established as a bridge builder for future cooperation.  We see how well that worked.  Closing it would, according to Gordon Chang deprive the North of as much as $600 million in hard currency each year.  Surely the manufactured goods could be relocated to other facilities inside South Korea.

3.       Interdiction of North Korean Exports.  Without the armistice, the US and other nations would be free to board, search and seize cargo shipped from North Korea that represented a violation of any UN resolutions, a proliferation of unauthorized weapons sale or a threat to global security.

To be sure these are acts of war and the North will wail it most belligerent epithets at even the suggestion of such actions.  But mice do not generally pick fights with tigers especially when the tiger is hungry or angry.

A willingness of the United States to say ENOUGH!—and mean it would make possible a fresh start by all parties in resolving this problem once and for all.  To back up this change in approach the US would need to demonstrate its resolve by:

1.       Deliver a clear and unambiguous message to North Korea it will defend any attack against South Korea or any US interest will a full and appropriate military response.

2.       Reaffirm US support for unified Korea and a willingness to work with China and others in Asia to facilitate such reunification when the North Korean regime collapses.

3.       Announce that the US was engaging in discussions with South Korea, Japan and others within range of North Korea’s missiles for the deployment of US weapons including tactical nuclear weapons to back up the strategy.

Such a no nonsense strategy for trapping the errant mouse is the only thing a mouse as wily as Kim Jong-Il understands.

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