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.
First, it is possible that Kim Jong Ill's regime could continue its provocations and finally miscalculate. South Korea could be backed into a nationalistic corner and be forced to escalate. In the past -- as in the sinking of the Cheonan -- North Korea has often implausibly denied its culpability, allowing much of the South Korean public to close its eyes and pretend. When shells fall on civilians in broad daylight, convenient illusions are dispelled. South Koreans had a visceral response to the deaths and evacuations, forcing President Lee Myung-bak to apologize for his initially supine response and to promise greater (though unspecified) vigor in the future. It is not inconceivable that North Korea might push past some invisible tripwire of South Korean pride, drawing the United States into the resumption of a shooting war.
A second outcome seems more likely. North Korea could find that its strategic calculations are correct: That none of its studied provocations will be enough to cause serious consequences. That South Koreans simply want to enjoy their well-earned prosperity instead of engaging in a heroic struggle that could destroy much of Seoul. That China still wants a buffer state on its border, no matter how dangerous and poorly run. That America, despite its past commitments, has no intention of renewing its part in Harry Truman's unended war.
But at some point this campaign of North Korean escalation becomes unsustainable for America. "The North Korean side," says Eberstadt, "may eventually manufacture a crisis with a conventional attack on a U.S. base or target. Then the American president will have a choice: meeting American security responsibilities, which may involve a generalized war, or a continuation of no response, no penalty -- undermining the credibility of the U.S. alliance with South Korea. The U.S. might be seen as a missile magnet by South Koreans, causing an upswell that compels our exit."
There is, however, a third possible outcome that has not been considered seriously enough -- an option other than possible war or strategic humiliation. South Korea, America and Japan, employing their technology and vast wealth, could attempt to undermine the North Korean regime from within. An aggressive, sustained campaign to break the North Korean information embargo, expose the barbarity and corruption of the regime to its own people, promote the work of dissidents and defectors, and encourage disloyalty among North Korean elites may or may not work. But the alternatives are increasingly unattractive.