WASHINGTON -- It is a dirty secret -- in a world increasingly without secrets -- that most nations have been quietly content with the status quo on the Korean peninsula.
According to a WikiLeaked State Department cable recounting a conversation in May 2009, Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew believes that "Beijing sees a North Korea with nuclear weapons as less bad for China than a North Korea that has collapsed." South Korea itself, in recent decades, has preferred to accommodate, even appease, Pyongyang rather than risk a confrontation that would threaten South Korean economic achievements. America has been the least comfortable with an unstable gangster regime possessing nuclear weapons, but neither negotiations nor sanctions have shifted North Korean behavior.
This stalemate has been comfortable for just about everyone -- except the North Korean people, living in a nation whose borders define a prison camp. But the comfortable stalemate seems to be ending, at North Korean insistence.
The North Korean regime is fully capable of provocative madness -- as when, in 1976, North Korean soldiers hacked Capt. Arthur Bonifas to death with axes in the DMZ -- but recent North Korean actions are not irrational. Since the Korean War armistice in 1953, Pyongyang has been contained by the military alliance between South Korea and America, and by American nuclear deterrence. North Korean provocations are designed to prove the alliance is toothless, and to gain recognition as a nuclear power. So, in the course of a week, the regime showed off a new "industrial-scale" uranium enrichment plant and shelled South Korean soldiers and civilians, in what is normally known as an act of war, but which, in this case, brought few consequences.
"This isn't the end," says Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute. "They are stepping up a game that escalates each time. And each time the North Korean side meets with less than devastating penalties, it moves to the stage beyond." Eberstadt believes a third North Korean nuclear test is likely soon, along with missile tests to solve technical problems in the delivery of nuclear warheads.
The outcomes of this dangerous game are limited in number.