When it comes to international provocations, North Korea's experienced extortionists have an outline that guides their bellicose dramas.
The starving Stalinists' latest armed tantrum fits the general theatrical scheme of past confrontations -- up to an uncomfortable point.
Elements of the outline are so formulaic they reduce to a bully's checklist. Close the North Korea-South Korea border with an angry huff? Check. Arrest foreigners, preferably journalists, since that guarantees big-league media headlines? Check. Imply the communist regime has or will obtain nuclear weapons? Yes, thuggish hints galore. Brandish ballistic missiles? Indeed, but this time embellish the brandish by touting a launch window (April 4 to April 8), which signals to diplomats that tyrant Kim Jong-Il is confident his Taepodong-2 missile will work.
Aim missiles at Japan? Check again, with a plus. If the missile demonstrates extended-range capabilities, then Kim's warheads could threaten U.S. territory.
Call these selected scenes from a bully's dangerous script. No argument from me: North Korea is a weak bully, an impoverished, economically failed state that is also a jailed state run by a criminal regime involved in international terror, narcotics smuggling, nuclear proliferation, kidnapping and theft, and guilty of starving millions of its own people. North Korea is vulnerable to pressure from China. Likewise, Kim's regime has demonstrated an interest in its own survival.
Both South Korea's "Sunshine Policy" (political and economic opening to the North) and the America's "python strategy" (the six-nation diplomatic process designed to denuclearize North Korea) have attempted to use the Kim regime's economic failure, susceptibility to Chinese pressure and desire to stay alive. With West Germany's expensive absorption of East Germany as an example, South Korea fears a North Korean collapse almost as much as it fears a war.
Though "Sunshine Policy" cash lines Kim's criminal pockets, it also looks to a post-communist North needing infrastructure and skilled workers. These South Korean and U.S. endeavors have had some successes -- the incremental successes of diplomacy.
The success is fragile, however. North Korea continues to pursue nuclear weapons. Halting that quest will take occasional Chinese political and economic pressure. Beijing believes Chinese economic progress requires access to the U.S. market. Beijing's bankers don't like the Obama administration's protectionist instincts -- its hard-line generals want to see Obama handle a crisis. For China, the current North Korean tantrum is a marketing tool and diplomatic test. Chinese pressure can be bought -- at a stiff price.
Enter Japan. North Korea's dramatic bullies expect Japan to kvetch then roll over, but -- the uncomfortable point -- suddenly Japan has its own script, one with dark historical echoes for East Asia.
In the first decades of the 20th century, the Japanese empire controlled Korea and swaths of contemporary China. Imperial Japanese forces, organized for offensive strikes, attacked Pearl Harbor and threatened Australia.
Japan's post-World War II constitution forswore offensive capacities but permitted self-defense forces. This century, Japan's Self-Defense Forces, however, have become a potent, high-tech military. The tech includes Aegis destroyers armed with U.S.-made Standard 3 antiballistic missiles (ABMs) and ground-based Patriot PAC-3 ABMs. Two months ago. Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Forces announced that it was authorized to intercept North Korean missiles threatening Japanese land and sea territory.
A defensive action? Yes, but indicative of subtle change. The Japanese are tired of North Korea's nuclear threats and worry that U.S. security promises are no longer rock solid. Barack Obama's opposition to ABMs increases their insecurity. The United States has Aegis ships near Japan and says it would intercept an "aberrant missile." This is measured language, carefully hedged -- but it doesn't fully reassure frightened Japanese.
Japan is slowly acquiring offensive capabilities. Japan doesn't have aircraft carriers, but it has deployed a new "helicopter destroyer" that looks like a lot like a "jump jet" carrier capable of offensive operations. Political support for offensive forces is building. When Pyogyang threw a nuclear tantrum in 2006, many Japanese clamored for "strike" weaponry to destroy North Korean missile sites.
Japan's threat of interception informs China that it faces a strategic choice. Continued North Korean possession of nukes and missiles could lead to a revival of Japanese offensive forces -- something China fears.
And a revived Japanese offensive military certainly isn't in North Korea's script.