Slicing the North Korean Knot

17 Apr

Gordian knot_Jesse Scaturro SculptureI’m rapidly loosing patience with “experts”. In this case, North Korea experts, that is. Generally, dealing with this latest peninsula crisis is not a matter of understanding North Korea. It’s about the United States having a coherent strategy of dealing with the world. A drawback of gimble lock is a proliferation of bad ideas.

Jason Healey and Jeremi Suri have convenient ways to deal with North Korea, by avoiding international law, or just defining away terms. Words are changeable, right? Jason Healey solves the mystery of the cyber hacking episode South Korea experienced in March of this year – North Korea is responsible.

The international community does not have a North Korea cyber problem, it simply has a North Korea problem. The cyberattacks are simply one facet of this larger dilemma. The Chinese leadership is already increasingly and publicly frustrated with Kim’s truculence and each new tantrum takes away Chinese face, further embarrassing its leadership. South Korean and American diplomats must add each new disruption to the list of outrages for which Beijing needs to answer and not treat each as a separate issue.

Still, China and others may try to divert attention by claiming there is insufficient evidence of North Korea authorship. The United States and South Korea should not treat cyber as anything different and respond the same way they did after the sinking of the Cheonan. Then, a group of international experts examined the evidence and published a well-documented smoking-gun report which “let North Korea and the international community know that even the most covert attack leaves evidence.”

A commission, perhaps empanelled by the United Nations or the governments involved, should similarly review the forensic evidence and national security context to develop conclusions about which group or nation was responsible. As with the Cheonan report, there will still be detractors, but a full and public reckoning will bring needed clarity and help set the baseline for new international norms.

North Korean cyberattacks have not caused casualties or serious disruption yet. But North Korea has learned to press its military confrontations; cyberattacks will get worse and could someday cross those thresholds. The international community must treat these cyber attacks like they would any other North Korean use of force and press the Chinese leadership to rein in their unruly neighbor.

There’s little Beijing can do that it hasn’t already tried, according to Rajan Menon. The China canard is more about wishing China weren’t so sovereign and just a little more like an obstreperous state, like Mississippi or Arizona. It’s a childishly idealistic assault on reality.

Jeremi Suri outdoes Alexander – let’s just bomb North Korea while we have the chance.

The Korean crisis has now become a strategic threat to America’s core national interests. The best option is to destroy the North Korean missile on the ground before it is launched. The United States should use a precise airstrike to render the missile and its mobile launcher inoperable.

President Obama should state clearly and forthrightly that this is an act of self-defense in response to explicit threats from North Korea and clear evidence of a prepared weapon. He should give the leaders of South Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan advance notice before acting. And he should explain that this is a limited defensive strike on a military target — an operation that poses no threat to civilians — and that America does not intend to bring about regime change. The purpose is to neutralize a clear and present danger. That is all.

If North Korea is left to continue its threatening behavior, it will jeopardize the fragile economies of the region and it will encourage South Korea and Japan to develop their own nuclear weapons — a policy already advocated by hawks in both countries. Most of all, North Korean threats will encourage isolated states across the world to follow suit. The Iranians are certainly watching. If North Korea can use its small nuclear arsenal to blackmail the region with impunity, why shouldn’t the mullahs in Tehran try to do the same?

The United States and its allies in East Asia have a legitimate right to self-defense and they have a deep interest in deterring future threats on this scale.

The problem with this is even simpler than sarcasm will allow.

Just to be clear, you’re talking about launching potentially dangerous military action to take out an untested missile based on obsolete Soviet technology with a range far short of the US mainland, right?

Welcome to the world as if it were Florida! The United States cannot cause every factory related to the production of missiles and fissile materials to disappear, and no country can bomb knowledge out of existence.

The fable of the Gordian knot begins with Alexander’s inability to untie the knot. Yet we misread the fable if we seek to understand knots, or North Korea. Alexander never thought to see the problem in his own ignorance, or to ponder the implications of his act. He merely resorted to force. The world as it is now doesn’t reward expediency like it did in 4th Century BCE Phrygia.

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