the Proper American Reponse to North Korea?
We know from years ago that North Korea is a nuclear-weapon-enabled tyrant nation that outlaws the use of critical electrical energy for its citizens. Despite being a backward country with a starving population North Korea still finds for itself the capability to outsmart the United States national security/foreign policy-makers.
North Korea’s artillery bombardment of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong on Tuesday makes it doubly clear that Pyongyang intends to leverage its new nuclear breakthrough for maximum concessions from the international community.
This nuclear revelation is not an intelligence failure. Over the past decade, intelligence analysts have consistently predicted North Korea’s path to nuclear weapons and noted the increasing evidence of its missile and nuclear proliferation. The failure has been that of policy makers and pundits who denigrated the analysis, ignored it, or clung to the fallacy that North Korea would abide by a denuclearization deal.
So what is the proper American response to this new open military aggression? It is not an engagement at the negotiating table to talk. In fact that would play right into the North Koreans’ hands.
It should be obvious by now that Pyongyang seeks acknowledgment as a nuclear state and intends to continue leveraging its proliferation threat to enjoy perpetual concessions from the U.S. North Korean officials have told outsiders that if America is concerned about proliferation, we should negotiate an “arms control agreement” with the North as mutual nuclear weapons states.
This would validate Pyongyang’s weapons status and leave the door open for repeated escalation of the North’s own weapons programs or proliferation, as U.S. credibility and deterrence steadily eroded. The existence of a highly enriched uranium facility makes this dynamic even more dangerous.
The Obama administration has said that the bombardment of Yeonpyeong is not a crisis, which is probably wise if the aim is to avoid granting the North even more leverage. On the other hand, it would be a colossal mistake to return to negotiations as if provocations are merely the price of doing business with Pyongyang. The focus right now should be on containment, interdiction and pressure. The inability to do so on a sustained basis until now was a failure of policy, not intelligence.
On the other hand is the classic solution of Gunboat Diplomacy, which President Obama is apparently not shy in enacting.
the United States is exercising a bit of gunboat diplomacy by sending a remarkably well armed naval task force into the Yellow Sea. The audience here is China, and this move will piss them off big time, thus must be intended to humiliate Chinese leadership. The most likely outcome here is 2 billion pissed off Chinese. That makes our policy an interesting approach, and potentially smarter than it sounds.
In part this is a game of chicken with the childish North Korean leadership that acts out in temper tantrums when they want something – and right now North Korea wants many things. In part though, this is also a game of chicken with daddy. China has repeatedly warned the US of consequences for moving an aircraft carrier into the Yellow sea, and many Generals have made threats including advocacy in editorials that China should strike with military power should the United States move a carrier into the Yellow Sea. It is one thing to play chicken with a spoiled brat, and quite another to play chicken with big daddy.
By making this move, we are changing the issue from one of a skirmish to one of an out of control belligerent state in need of a spanking, and we are focusing the worlds attention towards China demanding they wield the paddle. As a big picture move, which means a policy reaction to the skirmish that also includes the newly disclosed uranium nuclear facility as part of the problem, China is being accused and held accountable for all belligerence activities of North Korea… It is possible the reason the naval exercise were put off until Sunday is to give China time to condemn North Korean aggression, thus take the lead and reduce the need to move the GW into the Yellow Sea. Will China join the international community and condemn North Korea? Unlikely, however I wouldn’t rule it out, and I would imagine there must be a block inside Chinese leadership that is advocating this… I tend to think the Obama administration hasn’t miscalculated our understanding regarding the size of the Chinese egos involved in this situation, rather I just don’t believe President Obama cares anymore if the PRC takes an ego bruise for their position. Said another way, President Obama is thinking China might act responsibly, allowing him to offload some of the worlds concern for responsibility on Chinese leadership. From what I have seen watching China’s leadership, I don’t see it happening.
Moving the George Washington Carrier Strike Group into the Yellow Sea is bold, and carries a great deal of risk. This move will piss of Chinese leadership, and that will insure plenty of propaganda that enrages China’s population. I don’t expect China to attack the US Navy, but I do expect China to respond in a serious and potentially harsh way. The US is making a safe bet that nothing will happen and no one will be foolish enough to attack the US and South Korean naval forces. It is a good bet, but it is still a bet – and anyone who bets knows the rule: you can lose any bet.
I also believe we are making a move not unlike March 1996 when then President Clinton ordered the Nimitz and Independence carrier battle groups to sail through the Taiwan Strait. The consequence of that move was a vow by China of “never again,” a vow we are actually about to challenge in a different region off China’s coast. The unintended consequence of Clinton’s policy decision has been the most remarkable modernization in human history of the worlds largest Army, Navy, and Air Force. In less than 14 years, China’s military has essentially jumped 2 generations of combat capability. That is a remarkable pace, and highlights how no one can predict what reaction will come from moving the GW into the Yellow Sea… preventing war with an extended show of force is one way Naval power can be used in crisis, and naval power can do many things politically for any nation with a strong Navy.
Most US Presidents have at one point or another found the nation in a situation where the Navy is asked to move well forward, show the flag, and keep the peace. This is a function of naval power that US Navy officers and sailors are trained to do, and a function of military power the US military thinks about all the time, and practices for. Obama has called for a form of gunboat diplomacy to redirect the political focus and walk both sides of the Korean Peninsula back from the brink of war. Gunboat diplomacy takes its form and function unique to its political purpose for the situation. Gunboat diplomacy is always distinct to time and place, and even in the 21st century remains a policy of force intended to deter other nations from exercising the violent use of military power.
Will it work? President Obama is betting it will. The Obama administration policy is to follow South Korea’s lead politically but position the US to lead militarily with a show of force. The political signal is to maintain the peace, but respond with strength. That means South Korea will update rules of engagement, reinforce military positions in vulnerable areas, and ask for the US for assistance in pressuring China into reigning in North Korean belligerence.
Naturally a military response is the only appropriate first response. Negotiations can only ensue if the enemy is convinced that we have the advantage and they cannot escape an alternative of sure destruction. On the other hand we cannot be certain if this is the course of action our American policy-makers will pursue. We also have to remember that the course of action is primarily decided by South Korea (and that the last war is technically/legally still in effect). Despite that we have the legal option to obliterate North Korea the question is still in the air as to whether we should pursue full-bore military action considering our heavy presence still in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Although to be fair I wish we would pursue the great lethal force against the Islam Somali Terrorist Pirates