The current regime of international response to North Korea began on November 2, 2009, when it withdrew from the six-party talks. Since then, sanctions have progressively tightened. They have been ineffective because:
- China fears that total collapse of the North Korean state would result in an unmanageable migration of Koreans to China. So China requires the survival of the political entity.
- Survival of the North Korean state requires basic trade, if for no other reason than to avert starvation.
- Basic trade facilitates smuggling weapons components. It can’t be stopped, any more than drug smuggling. There are too many ways to do it.
Since sanctions have not worked, what else is there? Commentary in the mass media implicitly describes any choice other than sanctions as dangerous. Implicitly, the only permitted responses are nonescalatory.
The degree to which this has become conventional wisdom is indicated by the sinking of the South Korean minesweeper Cheonan in March 2010. On May 15, the motor, propellers, and related parts of a torpedo manufactured by North Korea, and marked as such, were dredged from the site. Rather than proceeding as a technical process, assignment of blame by South Korea became a complex social response, complicated by risk aversion, and a national unwillingness to admit helplessness. Much as with national catastrophes in other countries, such as 9/11, alternative explanations abounded in the same way that conspiracy theories flower.
This sounds like criticism, but it isn’t. Only a person immersed in South Korea can understand what it’s like to live under the gun. And to diverge in attitude is somewhat similar to suggesting to your neighbor that national suicide is a viable option. How the threat plays in South Korea is related to the alternatives. In London during the Blitz, there was no alternative to bravery. In South Korea, the alternative is a pretty comfortable existence.
This is the root of the conventional, almost unnoticed assumption, that any response to North Korea must be nonescalatory. This piece isn’t contradicting that, but merely drawing it out. If the strict regime of nonescalatory response were loosened, options exist. I don’t want to discuss them. I don’t want to impede a possible U.S. response in any way. So as interesting as the the subject is, I must forgo.
Perhaps a fundamental shift in the national attitude of South Korea is doubly impossible in the midst of the Korean presidential crisis. But Donald Trump has made a curious statement about the threatened ICBM test: It’s not going to happen.
The previous administration has been criticized for disregarding a red line, even though it may have resulted in massive removal of chemical weapons from Syria. Donald Trump has gone a step further: the event of an ICBM launch will not even occur.
This risks being another red-line trap. Of course, it’s just Twitter.