The Korean problem

So, after an afternoon of “did they or didn’t they,” we have confirmation that the government in North Korea launched an Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile — you know, one of those things that could drop a multi-megaton-sized firecracker on Tokyo, or Seoul, or … Los Angeles:

As he tried to grab a few hours rest in the Czech Republic last night, President Obama was woken up with the bad news that the North Korean government had launched a Taepo-dong 2 missile, which entered Japanese airspace.

Military analysts say the Taepo-dong 2 missile has the potential of being able to reach Alaska, Hawaii, or the Western United States. World leaders, including President Obama on Friday, had issued repeated warnings to the rogue regime that such an act would be considered a “provocative” act and would further isolate the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from the international community.

Gad, don’t you just love it? In response to a slap in the face we …clucked our tongues and told Pyongyang that firing a missile capable of hitting American allies or the western United State itself would be “provocative.” I’ll bet that has Kim Jong-Il quaking in his designer boots. What will we do when San Francisco or Honolulu goes up in a radioactive fireball — wag our fingers at them? Call for UN peacekeepers? Send in community organizers?

Folks, for those of you not paying attention at home, we really are dealing with a rational foe here, all appearances to the contrary. North Korea is a mountain-bandit state, extorting what it can from its neighbors by exploiting their fear that Pyongyang might actually go crazy and start a war with South Korea. The whole “we’ll fire a missile” routine is an act to force us (and Japan, and China, and South Korea) into giving the regime just enough to survive.

So far, their calculations have paid off. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush gave, and now Barack Obama can be expected to give, North Korea what it wantsΒ  -food and fuel-Β  in return for peace on the Korean peninsula. Each administration has felt there are more pressing problems that the “Korean question,” so it becomes the “realistic” thing to make concessions and hope the North Korean dictators don’t do something truly stupid.

Emotionally, of course, the feel-good thing would be to destroy the North Korean launch facilities, in order to impress on the Kim regime that we won’t tolerate “bandit behavior.” But, that would also be a stupid thing to do, for North Korea’s response could be devastating to South Korea, even if we were to ultimately crush the North. Chest-thumping on our part could lead to the death of tens of thousands. Could we bear that responsibility?

Thus President Obama finds himself in a difficult situation in the wake of the North Korean missile launch: to do nothing other than issue statements (the preferred plan of liberal internationalists everywhere) make us look weak and encourages the bandits in Pyongyang. To react with spastic vigor, on the other hand, risks a war that almost everyone agrees would be a bloody nightmare, even though we would ultimately win.

I suspect our president is, like most liberal internationalists, someone who wishes the real world would go away and leave him free to reorder America as he wishes, other than for the occasional international conference. Trouble is, that isn’t going to happen. Dictators who live by the raw calculus of power will see that he just wants to eat his waffle and will thus challenge him and us. They’ll fire missiles over Japan and toward Hawaii. While bombing North Korea would be counter-productive, issuing emasculated statements is just as bad, because it tells North Korea that we really won’t do anything. So, go ahead and push even harder. We’re sure to find another “reasonable gesture” to make. And another, and another…

…Until one day a line is crossed that even we cannot ignore, and thousands die because we couldn’t find the right balance between gelded statements and blind reaction. And the sad thing is I don’t at all trust President Obama to find that balance.

He’s too busy with his waffles.

(Cross-posted at Public Secrets,Β  my usual Web home.)

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