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.
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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