North Korea's threat to shoot down South Korean civilian airliners and its plan to test a new long-range missile (couched as a satellite launch) follow the extortion script. The bellicose threats and display of weaponry are a probe of the Obama administration's commitment to allies and its willingness to protect American interests.
North Korea has actually handed the Obama administration an opportunity to stand strong. U.S. and South Korea forces have quietly continued to conduct annual military exercises, which send the important signal that the United States is prepared to back up South Korea in the event of a North Korean attack. That's good.
Japan, however, has exhibited the most spine. After North Korea announced a new missile test, Japan's defense ministry began deploying Aegis destroyers equipped with U.S.-made anti-missile missiles (anti-ballistic missiles) in the Sea of Japan. A spokesman for Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force said that its defense guidelines permit the interception of any missile (even one allegedly carrying a communications satellite) if it "appears likely" to land in Japanese territory, including territorial waters.
The Japanese remember the 1998 North Korean missile test that "bracketed" their country. They are tired of the extortion racket, which is why they have invested in missile defense. The Obama administration should applaud Japan's decision to demonstrate its defensive capabilities. Of course, this amounts to an acknowledgement by Obama that missile defense makes sense diplomatically and militarily.
The Obama administration needs to continue the six-nation talks. Bush's "python" strategy required the steady cooperation of China. Beijing may be angling for economic assurances that economic protectionists in the United States will resist. China has no interest in a war on the Korean Peninsula. South Korea and the United States are two of China's major trading partners. However, China also wants to make certain the United States doesn't erect trade barriers. President Obama says, "Buy American." China says, "Keep shelf space for Chinese goods." Access to the U.S. market is vital to China. Chinese help in squeezing North Korea is vital.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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