Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 04:18 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 04:18 | SYDNEY

North Korea: Hold your fire


Sam Roggeveen


24 November 2010 11:22

It's hard to overstate just how brazen Pyongyang's provocations have been over the last few years, with the shelling of a South Korean island yesterday just the latest example. Off the top of my head, we can also include the recently exposed uranium enrichment program, the sinking of the Cheonan, the involvement in a secret Syrian nuclear reactor, the export of ballistic missiles to Iran, and two underground nuclear tests.

Saddam Hussein's regime did far less than that, and got itself invaded.

So it's worth pausing at this time to admire the restraint that successive South Korean and American administrations have shown toward Pyongyang. Yes, that restraint has in large part been imposed by external factors — military action against North Korea in response to any of these provocations would be strategically disastrous. The Western powers would eventually win such a war, but Seoul is in North Korean artillery range, and would suffer terribly in the process. The victors would also face a humanitarian crisis, a huge nation-building effort and a confrontation with Beijing about who is in charge on the Korean peninsula.

So, yes, the incentives against military action are strong, but governments do stupid and self-destructive things all the time (see: Korea, Democratic People's Republic of), which means we shouldn't take the current more enlightened approach for granted.

It may not be very emotionally satisfying to turn the other cheek, but while no outside force (not even China) seems to have much influence on Pyongyang, it is worth remembering that the powers arrayed against North Korea are in a position of overwhelming strength, in diplomatic, military and economic terms.

Now is the time to reinforce those strengths, making it clear to Pyongyang that its provocations will only increase the unity and resolve of South Korea and its allies. The North Korea problem can be contained if that resolve is maintained; as Malcolm Cook argued last year, the real danger is that Pyongyang encourages South Korea and Japan to lose faith in the US-led alliance system and pursue their own nuclear deterrents.

Photo by Flickr user BLGPhoto, used under a Creative Commons license.