So why is this time any different, and what will we do this time to change the pattern? I think that the young dictator Kim Jung-on, unproven and with an unknown level of loyalty within the all-important military, has initiated an escalation in the usual level of provocative blather for domestic consumption; if that is true, then this little noise bump will pass without much serious consequence. On the other hand, if North Korea believes its back is against the wall because of external pressures, or because the noise and provocation doesn't convince the military leaders of young Kim's serious intent, violence could emerge in several possible forms.
The relatively minor ones we have seen before, and some have already been probed: North Korea captures visitors, kicks others out, closes lines of communication, shells undefended hamlets, and now, symbolic but new and ominous, announces that the armistice which ended hostilities sixty years ago has ceased to be in effect. In doing so, the North Koreans made reference to some military maneuvers conducted by South Korea and the US, ones that are not violations of any agreements but which North Korea chose to interpret as hostile.
The worst-case scenarios all involve one fairly unfortunate fact: Seoul, one of the largest cities in the world and one of the most economically significant, is vulnerably close to the border. It is hardly beyond belief that Pyongyang could find a way to deliver a nuclear weapon close enough to South Korea's capital to cause huge damage, and it is undeniably true that artillery could set the city ablaze.
|The core of the problem: looking at South Korea in isolation, Seoul looks like the eye of a seated, praying monk. The sense of calm this suggests betrays the fact that harm lies just overhead.|
North Korea thus has the ability to treat their enemy's capital as a hostage and extracts ransom though implied threats to cause it harm. As for the threats to rain down destruction on the US, even on Japan, I would discount them. If North Korea should ever launch a missile with a trajectory headed for us, one of our outlying territories, or one of our allies--it is easy to establish the trajectory of a missile very quickly--we have anti-missile missiles close at hand to destroy that thing, and the retribution would be swift, inevitable, and permanent (but not without some harm to our friends in South Korea).
The West--and that includes South Korea--has been restrained in its response to North Korea's threats. New Secretary of State John Kerry and President Obama have limited their direct comments to asking Pyongyang to knock it off, while offering direct talks--something North Korea often, but not always, has sought.
The more subtle, and more significant, gambit of the US is a renewed approach to China, asking the Chinese to restrain their overexuberant ally. China has a new set of leaders, too, just installed in the last couple of months, and their language suggests a little less inclination to defend North Korea no matter what, a little more to rein it in, and a lot more interest in the well-being of South Korea, which has become a major trading partner.
Looking at North Korea in the long-run, there are really only three outcomes:
1) China tires of the Kim dynasty and puts in place a regime more likely to follow China's directives;
2) China tires of the Kim dynasty and allows the North Korean rule to fall and reunification to happen, similar to what happened with the Soviet Union and East Germany at the end of the Cold War; or
3) Hostilities break out, North Korea causes incalculable damage but is utterly ruined and its Communist government ended.
Of the three, 2) would be the best outcome for Korea and for most of the world, but 1) is by far the most likely. So, the real questions are whether China decides to move sooner or later to end this disastrous regime, and what influence the rest of the world may have upon them to do that.