Why did North Korea lace a South Korean island with artillery fire this week, then threaten further escalation? Because sensational attacks are a vicious form of advertising that reap significant political and economic dividends. Deadly fits of violence followed by diplomatic tantrums advance the interests of North Korean tyrant Kim Jong-Il and his Stalinist regime.
Since the Cold War ended, Pyongyang has played a calculated game with South Korea and its allies, Japan and the United States. The North launches a military attack or terrorist foray, which is followed by vicious bluster.
As time passes and the blood cools, North Korea signals it is ready to talk and perhaps discuss the possibility of, oh, ending its nuclear weapons program? However, the North insists on incentives. South Korea, Japan and the U.S. are urged to provide economic and political carrots so North Korea will drop its military stick.
Consider the pattern over the last two decades. After his father, Kim Il-Sung, died in 1994, Kim Jong-Il threatened violence while conducting nuclear negotiations. The U.S. agreed to supply the North with fuel oil. In 1998, South Korea began its Sunshine Policy, which included support for business ventures. Yet the North continued to test ballistic missiles. In October 2006, North Korea detonated a nuke. The same routine of tantrum then talks followed.
2010 has been a big year for Kim's dangerous game. This past March, North Korea sunk a South Korean naval vessel and killed 46 sailors. South Korea considered a military response. Over the summer, tensions eased. This fall, the South shipped food to the North. Now artillery shells rain on a South Korean shopping center.
The game is obvious, yet South Korea and its allies have consistently rewarded Kim's armed tantrums with economic candy. Despite tough rhetoric, both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations in the U.S. have acceded to North Korea's extortion racket.
Four deep concerns give South Korea and the U.S. pause when considering military action to topple the Kim regime.
The global economy is a huge consideration. Kim's missiles target valuable economic territory. The destructive consequences of all-out war in one of the world's most economically productive regions, East Asia, are thus far judged too great to risk waging one. The possible use of nuclear weapons adds another grave dimension.
China's reaction is another concern. China does not want a war on its border. That is bad for business. North Korean refugees might flood China. But what would China's generals do if they see U.S. and South Korean armies (much less aided by China's historical enemy, Japan) advancing north of the DMZ? China is capable of responding with a range of economic, diplomatic and military efforts. The fact that Beijing, to its discredit, still supports North Korea's communist state is not a good indicator.
A dynastic change is brewing in the North. Kim Jong-Il has a favored son, but a war of succession involving other relatives and military factions is possible. The effects of an internal struggle are difficult to assess. The next generation may prefer negotiations, or it may be raw, obstreperous and more prone to desperate action.
A bitterly ironic consideration further tempers South Korean policy. It took West Germany a decade-plus to pay for East Germany's communist failure. Given the North's dismal poverty, it could take five decades to make the wretched place habitable. Many South Koreans do not want to bear that economic burden.
Yet North Korea intends to acquire a nuclear arsenal, and this week revealed a sophisticated enrichment facility. A nuclear strike on Seoul also presents South Koreans with a heavy economic burden, along with heavy casualties.
A terrible day of decision is approaching -- the day North Korea deploys its nuclear warheads. The dangerous game then becomes more dangerous, and South Korea may no longer enjoy the luxury of avoiding war. Until that day arrives, North Korea's continued belligerence demonstrates that the allies' economic incentives are little more than acts of cyclical ineptitude. Rewards for murderous behavior must end. Let wealthy China pay all of North Korea's bills. Who knows, investment-savvy Beijing may finally tell Kim to quit wasting money on nukes.