Since the Korean war’s end, North Korea has repeatedly conducted a foreign policy of the unsheathed sword, embarking upon a multitude of illogical acts of provocation aimed only at stirring up international conflict. Pyongyang’s targets have alternated among the U.S., South Korea and Japan. All three countries have suffered through mindless acts of aggression, including seizing a U.S. spy ship in international waters, killing one crewman and imprisoning others for almost a year; attempting to assassinate a South Korean president, killing the First Lady in the process; and abducting young school children in Japan, of whom only a few, many years later, were ever returned.
The list of egregious acts of aggression goes on and on. More recently, North Korea conducted underground nuclear detonations, spreading radiation clouds globally. Missile barrages off its east coast, threatening Japan, are becoming commonplace — with the most recent volley just last Thursday. Now, a long range missile launch off North Korea’s west coast, threatening Hawaii, appears imminent.
Logic dictates we always anticipate illogical, provocative acts by Pyongyang. Thus, it was surprising last week when North Korea appeared to act logically and responsibly to avoid conflict in an incident in which confrontation was fully anticipated. Accordingly, the incident requires closer examination to assess why a conflict, in that particular instance, was avoided. Such an assessment will help to shed light not only on what we can anticipate regarding the threatened long range missile launch in the days ahead but also on the complexities involved in understanding what makes the Hermit Kingdom tick.
This assessment begins with the factors leading up to the referenced incident.
Following North Korea’s second detonation of a nuclear device in violation of existing U.N. resolutions in May of this year, the international body sought to get tougher with the
rogue nation. The Security Council passed a new resolution on June 12 calling for inspection of any North Korean ship suspected of carrying contraband. However, the wording used made these inspections voluntary, failing to authorize use of force. In other words, U.N. member states could ask a suspect ship to submit to inspection, but the North Koreans could refuse, with the ship then being allowed unfettered passage to a port of its choosing.
The U.N. resolution’s focus, once the ship was in port, is simply to pressure the country providing safe harbor in “vigorous diplomatic efforts” to conduct an inspection of the suspect vessel’s cargo or deny it support services, thus impeding transit to its final destination. But, obviously, if that country is one friendly to North Korea, such an inspection is meaningless. Thus, the only impact the resolution has is to generate negative publicity for North Korea — a rogue state which for decades has demonstrated absolutely no concern over its negative image within the world community.
As world heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali used to boast about his fighting style, he could “float like a butterfly and sting like a bee.” Applying this insect analogy to the UN’s recent resolution against North Korea, it packs all the punch of a butterfly’s sting.
Thus, the stage was set as the North Korean ship Kang Nam, suspected of carrying illicit cargo — probably low tech weaponry — in violation of UN resolutions, departed on June 17 for an unknown port. The vessel set sail after Pyongyang warned any effort to inspect it would be deemed an act of war, drawing a “fireshower of nuclear retaliation” by North Korea. The US began tracking the vessel, which sailed under President Barack Obama’s “ominous” — in view of the milquetoast resolution — threat that any North Korean violations would “be met with significant, serious enforcement of sanctions.”
Shadowed by the U.S. Navy, and based on its course, Kang Nam appeared to be heading to a port in another rogue state, Myanmar. The U.S. believed a rejected request to inspect the ship would result in Kang Nam proceeding directly into Myanmar — where subsequent inspection, sought through diplomatic channels, would prove fruitless since the country is ruled by a military junta friendly to North Korea. But, inexplicably, on June 30, before the U.S. could decide whether to request an inspection, Kang Nam altered course, heading back to its home port.
While some observers initially took the ship’s turnaround as a voluntary effort by Pyongyang to avoid confrontation, critics familiar with the country’s dictator, Kim Jung Il, did not. It simply was not within the firebrand leader’s DNA to back down from confrontation, particularly in a case involving a toothless U.N. resolution.
Most likely, Kang Nam’s course change was tied to Myanmar’s demand the ship not enter its waters. The junta, already in the international spotlight for mistreatment of jailed opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, had no interest in drawing further attention to itself by allowing Kang Nam entry, triggering diplomatic pressure for the vessel’s inspection. Accordingly, Pyongyang’s motivation for altering the ship’s course was not a voluntary act of responsible conduct but, as logic in dealing with North Korea suggests, an involuntary act prompted by Myanmar’s refusal to grant entry.
For the specific reason the turnaround gave the appearance Pyongyang was backing down, Kim Jong Il may well have sensed a loss of face, not only to him but to his youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-Un, recently installed as head of the country’s spy agency. This was damage he then had to repair. This is probably why, only two days after Kang Nam’s turnaround, four additional missiles were fired off North Korea’s east coast. Kang Nam’s rejection by Myanmar will now most likely embolden the North Korean strongman as well to follow through with the long range missile threat aimed at Hawaii. Not only would the launch regain face for him, it would provide yet another marketing opportunity by which North Korea could demonstrate its “wares of war” for interested customers sharing a common anti-U.S. bond with Pyongyang.
Kang Nam’s turnaround generated hope, albeit short-lived, of a turnaround in thinking by Pyongyang. But the Kang Nam incident and North Korea’s established track record of committing illogical acts of aggression should leave us with a clear understanding that such acts will continue, escalating the danger.