Pushing the Envelope in North Korea

By Guo, Jerry | Newsweek, December 6, 2010 | Go to article overview

Pushing the Envelope in North Korea


Guo, Jerry, Newsweek


Byline: Jerry Guo; With John Barry in Washington, Takashi Yokota in Tokyo, and Melinda Liu in Beijing

You can't really blame anyone who clings to the hope that North Korea's deadly bombardment of a South Korean town last week was only a particularly nasty negotiating ploy. Pyongyang has always relied on extortionist bargaining tactics, and right now the North is verging on one of its worst food shortages in years. Nevertheless, the attack on Yeonpyeong Island was more likely an early manifestation of a hardline policy shift in Pyongyang. And what makes it even scarier is that no outside power--not even China, the closest thing North Korea has to a friend--can do much about the North's psychopathic behavior without risking a potentially catastrophic collapse on the peninsula.

Washington wagged its finger, sending the carrier USS Washington to engage in maneuvers with the South Korean Navy. Since all U.S. Navy combat plans involve at least two carriers--and preferably three--the Pentagon was evidently calculating that the North would not misinterpret the deployment as a step toward war and launch a disastrous preemptive attack on the South. Instead, the carrier sent a message to China's leaders: expect a continued U.S. presence in your neighborhood until you get the North Koreans to calm down.

Trouble with the North has been brewing for many months. Last week's artillery strike took place in the same waters where the South Korean military vessel Cheonan sank, killing 46 sailors this past March, and tensions grew worse than ever in late November with the revelation that the regime has built a second uranium-enrichment plant. (Some analysts are expecting the North Korean military to conduct its third nuclear test soon, although one more test isn't likely to make much difference at this point.) Evidence has emerged since the Yeon-pyeong attack that it was premeditated. On Aug. 9, the North fired roughly 100 artillery pieces toward South Korean waters, and later that same day, North Korean drones were spotted hovering near Yeonpyeong, presumably scouting its defenses. After the top U.S. officer in South Korea paid a visit to the island late last week, the North responded by launching another artillery drill, and its official news agency warned that "the situation on the Korean Peninsula is inching closer to the brink of war."

Pyongyang's actions are undoubtedly tied to the recent emergence of Kim Jong-il's youngest son and designated successor, Kim Jong-un. …

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