Nearly 50,000 American and United Nations forces died in Korea during the Korean War in 1950-53. Another 2 million Koreans died in the Cold War conflict. Today, the presence of 28,000 American soldiers sends a silent message to North Korea’s regime, warning them not to launch another invasion of their cousins to the south.
North Korea has not reinvaded, but they have created a successful pattern of bullying both the South Korean government and the United States to their own advantages and purposes. Two recent events – the torpedoing of a South Korean naval ship and the deaths of 46 sailors, and the shelling of a South Korean Island, killing four civilians – are examples of these provocations.
More than two dozen face-offs have occurred during the past 30 years, following this pattern pointed out in an article by Graham Allisson in the July/August 2012 edition of “Foreign Affairs.” I’m going to quote the section and then comment on a lesson from this experience:
“U.S and South Korean policy makers have shied away from such risks (of a nuclear war), demonstrating that they are deterred by North Korea’s threat to destroy Seoul in a second Korean war. North Korean leaders have taken advantage of this fear to develop an effective strategy for blackmail. It begins with an extreme provocation blatantly crossing a red line that the United States has set out, along with a threat that any response will lead to a ‘sea of fire.’ After tensions have risen, a third party, usually China, steps in to propose that ‘all sides’ step back and cool down. Soon thereafter, side payments to North Korea are made by South Korea or Japan or the United States, leading to a resumption of talks. After months of negotiations, Pyongyang agrees to accept still more payments in return for promises to abandon its nuclear program. Some months after that, North Korea violates the agreement, Washington and Seoul express shock, and they vow never to be duped again. And then, after a decent interval the cycle starts once more.”
There seems to be a major lesson from this story: The lesson forces us to look at the limits of power in high stakes situations like this one.
For any president, Republican or Democrat, the choice is difficult. Does the U.S. force North Korea to be accountable for its irresponsible and provocative actions and risk a second bloody war on the Korean Peninsula, or does a president appease North Korea and encourage a nonending repetition of North Korea’s bullying and manipulative behavior? Appeasement will only encourage other dysfunctional nations like Iran to adopt the same behavior.
The answer seems to lie in the middle ground between nuclear war and giving in to bullies. This was the same problem President Kennedy faced during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy, because he had time to examine his options, chose a naval blockade around Cuba to force the Soviets to back down and remove its missiles, rather than risk an invasion of Cuba that might have provoked a nuclear war. That crisis over Cuba has never repeated itself.
A redline has to be drawn that countries like North Korea and Iran know must not be crossed. The only way for any president to do that is to not make threats, unless they are carried through. It’s easy to say but very difficult to do. That requires integrity and strength on the part of any president and any person in authority.