Since assuming the highest US office two years ago, only one issue has warranted rousing President Barack Obama in the middle of the night: North Korea. The first was on 25 May 2009 when he was informed that Pyongyang had just conducted another nuclear test. The second was on 23 November 2010 when he was woken up at 3.55am and told that North Korea had just shelled the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, perhaps the most serious military incident since the end of the Korean war 57 years ago.
The US reaction was predictable: It condemned North Korea’s actions; offered support to the South by dispatching the nuclear-powered and, possibly, nuclear-armed George Washington carrier battle group; and called upon China to reign in the military adventurism of its communist ally. Some US commentators, such as Zbigniew Brzezinski, former US national security adviser, accused the North Korean regime of “insanity” and lamented that Pyongyang’s “actions are difficult to fathom in rational terms”.
The recent antics of the Kims—who established the world’s first dynastic communist state—can be explained in light of the succession process of Kim Jong-un, the chubby 20-something son of Kim Jong-il, who has been disparagingly referred to as the “cute leader”. The series of provocative acts reportedly carried out by Pyongyang—the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, the preparations for a third nuclear test, the building of a new uranium enrichment plant, and the artillery barrage on the South Korean island—were clearly designed to supplant the cherubic demeanour of the Hermit Kingdom’s youngest anointed heir with one of fiery disposition. The latest exercise in brinkmanship was also aimed at getting concessions from Washington and Seoul.
However, this does not mean there is no justification for North Korea’s paranoia. While the Korean war ended in 1953, it could be rationally argued that in the absence of a formal peace treaty, North Korea still considers itself at war with South Korea and the US. This perspective is manifest in the regular joint exercises, the continued presence of nearly 30,000 US troops and, until recently, nuclear weapons in South Korea. In July, the US and South Korea conducted a naval exercise off the port of Busan to “deter future aggression” by North Korea, which Pyongyang saw as a “provocation aimed to stifle” it. A similar exercise scheduled for October and “meant to send a message to the North Koreans about their behaviour” was cancelled when China loudly protested about the location of the exercise. Even last Tuesday’s barrage coincided with the ongoing US-South Korean Hoguk military exercise and was reportedly provoked by South Korean test-firing from the nearby Baengmyeong Island.
Clearly, the deep hostility is exacerbated by the actions taken by both sides. In this spiral of confrontation, Washington is fast running out of options and may even find itself confronting China. While Obama’s call to China to help curb North Korea is a step in the right direction, Beijing is unlikely to oblige. Chinese observers described the latest escalation as an “accidental occurrence” and the leadership is unable or unwilling to put pressure on North Korea during this crucial period of transition for fear it might lead to the collapse of its ally. In addition, the reported involvement of Chinese companies and agencies in the “ultramodern” North Korean centrifuge plant might also make Beijing reluctant to cooperate too closely with the US. In fact, it is likely to increase tensions between Washington and Beijing. Obama can no longer ignore the North Korean issue and none of the options looks promising. He would do well to work out a cohesive strategy for the next time he is woken up in the middle of the night.