Springtime has again come to Washington. Like clockwork, the cherry blossoms are in bloom, tourists are swarming the national mall, and America is once again facing a crisis over North Korea.
It was wholly predictable, not because Kim Jong Un is an untested leader with something to prove so much as the winter stores of food are running out and the North Korean people are once again about one bowl of kimchee away from starvation. Lacking the means to produce their own food, North Korea's leaders must rely on military threats to persuade the Americans, the Japanese, the South Koreans and the Chinese to provide them with what they need.
In essence, every spring they go to the world and demand food and other essentials as the price of continued peace.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the North Koreans have found themselves increasingly isolated from the rest of the world. Part of this is a conscious choice, with Kim Jong Un and his predecessors unwilling to risk opening the system to "western influences" that could corrupt the purity of state communism.
It is also true, however, that – other than war – North Korea has nothing to offer the rest of the world. It has nothing to trade. No intellectual capital to export. No natural resources to develop. Nothing, so it has to rely on bluster and belligerence to get the assistance it needs.
Up to now, it has been the threat to develop nuclear weapons. Going back to the Clinton Administration, the primary U.S. effort to preserve the status quo on the Korean peninsula has been five-party talks that also included the two Koreas, Japan, and China. And, for some time, they were moderately successful. North Korea got food and medical supplies and didn't start a war.
The North Koreans have altered the calculus. It was one thing when the more responsible powers involved in keeping the peace had as their common objective keeping Pyongyang from developing nuclear weapons. It's entirely different now that they have them, because they only present a credible threat if one believes they are willing to use them. And they may not be.
Consider that North Korea, having failed to gain what it wants at the negotiating table, decides to prove its resourcefulness and credibility by launching a weaponized missile at Seoul, at Tokyo, at Okinawa, or even at Alaska or a major city on the west coast of the United States. Assuming it doesn't explode on the launch pad and is not shot down by U.S. ballistic missile defenses, a successful attack would be followed by the addition of the phrase "the pile of rubble formerly known as North Korea" to the global lexicon.
The world would not tolerate a nuclear attack by North Korea on anyone. The collective response would be swifter and more severe than any before experienced in world history. Even the Chinese, who fear the destabilization of the Korean peninsula because of the problems it could create for them internally, especially if it were to cause a flood of refugees across the border, would be forced to go along.
The only question would be the nature of the response. One option would be a low-level nuclear strike aimed at Pyongyang to take out the military and political leadership. While a match, measure for measure for what the North Koreans had done, it might kill too many innocent civilians for the world to tolerate the human cost. The other option would be a massive invasion, on land and by sea, by a combined global force that would occupy the country and put an end to the Kim dynasty once and for all.
The reconstruction of the country and the possible reunification with South Korea would occupy the world's time for much of the ensuing decade. Nevertheless, the use of a nuclear weapon for offensive purposes by Pyongyang, just to prove a point, would be the last act of a homicidal and, ultimately, suicidal regime because the world could not allow such an act to go unchallenged.
This may mean it is time to call the North Koreans bluff. They want the world to believe they have a functioning nuclear weapons program and a functioning missile program. They worked very hard to make it clear to the rest of the world that they possess weapons of mass destruction. Now they have to prove they can operate as a member of the global community of nations, as much as they may want to remain isolated for domestic purposes.
They can develop weapons and use them responsibly – which is to say not at all – or they can take the chance that the B-2 bombers stationed at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri will pay them a visit and bomb them into the Stone Age. It may not be the perfect solution, but it does seem that now is the time to talk tough to the North Koreans rather than continue to molly-coddle them in the hopes they will continue to be nice.