HONG KONG — North Korea’s murderous provocation may be having its intended effect of creating a sense of crisis in the region, which Pyongyang hopes will bring diplomatic gains. Beijing, though at one level embarrassed by the behavior of its ally, also aims to gain from the crisis atmosphere by presenting itself as part of the solution. In reality, Beijing’s failure yet again to criticize Pyongyang’s attack makes it part of the problem.
Washington, Seoul and Tokyo are right to view with skepticism Beijing’s call for a six-party meeting to discuss the crisis. Hopefully this is a sign that the United States will not be trapped into making concessions on other issues in return for promises by Beijing to help restrain North Korea from further provocations.
Refusing to be provoked by Pyongyang is easier said than done if you are the president of a proud and powerful nation like South Korea, which twice in a few months has been the subject of deadly North Korean aggression, or the leader of its protector, the United States.
Yet a show of force to appease the public or send a message to Beijing would also play to North Korea’s desire to deflect attention from its deliberate attack on the Yellow Sea island of Yeonpyeong toward the broader issues that are the subject of the six-party talks. It is no coincidence that the Yeonpyeong attack came just after the North had raised more alarms by taking a U.S. scientist to see a hitherto unsuspected uranium enrichment facility.
But so what? It is well known that the North has nuclear capability — and no realistic way of using it other than as a diplomatic lever.
It is perhaps unfortunate that the U.S.-South Korea exercises in the Yellow Sea were planned before the latest incident. Although justified by previous North Korean actions — notably the sinking in March of the South Korean Naval vessel, the Cheonan — and by rights in international waters, the military maneuvers irritate Beijing and give the impression that the world is facing an issue much broader than another Pyongyang provocation.
The United States cannot punish the North militarily without risking a wider conflict that would do far more damage to the prosperous, trade-dependent South than to a North accustomed to endless hardships imposed by a brutal regime. That is the principal reason why the U.S. and South Korea should focus not on military exercises but on diplomatic action and the withdrawal of aid and commerce.
There are other reasons for showing restraint. One is that it is hard to figure out the motives behind the latest attack. Was this entirely driven by Pyongyang’s desire to raise the stakes prior to going back to the six-party talks? Or was it partly the result of Kim Jong-il’s youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, trying to show that he was prepared for leadership and willing to indulge the military’s dominance? Or was it the result of an internal power struggle involving senior military figures and relatives of the Kim dynasty? Or did it reflect a desire to be noticed, born out of frustration that Seoul recently strutted on the world stage as host of the G-20 summit?
Pyongyang’s actions initially caused far more diplomatic damage to the North than to the South. The attacks have been a reminder that China has recently given a lot to the North by apparently offering its blessing to the dynastic succession and in praising Pyongyang for “resisting U.S. aggression.”
Coming soon after the Cheonan sinking, this latest attack has brought Seoul and Washington closer together at a time when economic issues were strengthening the South’s links with China. It also seemed to justify the harder-line stance toward the North taken by President Lee Myung-bak compared with his predecessor.
Of the other regional players, the Russians are annoyed and Japan will see this as another reason to reaffirm its U.S. alliance. But there is now a very real danger of a U.S. overreaction to provocation that would deliver benefits to North Korea.
The best policy is to ignore Pyongyang’s bravado and threats and be wary of China’s offers to mediate. In the short term at least, it would be wiser for Washington and its allies to treat North Korea’s histrionics with disdain and not be dragged into a contrived crisis.