The real danger with North Korea

North Korea sends top negotiators to peace talks
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North Korea sends top negotiators to peace talks 02:35

Story highlights

  • North, South Korea exchanged artillery fire this week
  • Christian Whiton: West should put North Korea under pressure, on defensive

Christian Whiton is a former deputy special envoy for human rights in North Korea for the George W. Bush administration. He is president of the Hamilton Foundation, a principal with DC Advisory, a public policy consultancy, and the author of "Smart Power: Between Diplomacy and War." The views expressed are his own.

(CNN)The latest crisis involving North Korea appears to be ebbing. It started when Pyongyang's forces allegedly placed landmines on the South Korean side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). Two South Korean soldiers were nearly killed by the mines earlier this month. American soldiers also patrol the DMZ and could have been the victims.

This week, North Korea fired artillery shells across the border and South Korea responded in kind. Now Pyongyang's officials are threatening war unless South Korea stops propaganda it is broadcasting across the DMZ on loudspeakers (something North Korea does itself.) Indeed, Kim Jong Un, the North's dictator, announced a "quasi-state of war" with his government's usual lack of subtlety.
The crisis comes as the United States and South Korea conduct joint military exercises. Those operations make it crystal clear to Pyongyang that launching a general war -- which would paralyze trade in Northeast Asia and immediately waylay the U.S. economy -- would mean tangling simultaneously with both South Korea and the United States.
    Christian Whiton
    But despite of the heated rhetoric of the past day or two -- or perhaps because -- both sides have what they need to step back from the brink of war as talks between the two continue. Kim might choose to boast of the two soldiers his side maimed without provocation and the shells it fired into the South (North Korea officially denied it planted the mines). Seoul can say it retaliated to the shelling and demonstrated it can put itself on a hair trigger when necessary.
    There is, of course, always the risk that the unpredictable North will escalate the conflict nonetheless. But a more realistic concern is that the free world may mistake the ongoing absence of a major attack as proof that North Korea is successfully contained and deterred. Pyongyang instigates crises approximately twice per year, ratcheting up tensions, grabbing headlines and then fading away until the next bizarre or bellicose incident. This pattern inures people to its conduct, who can assume with high confidence that any crisis will pass with limited real impact.
    Unfortunately, North Korea is getting better at creative aggression. It paid no real price for sinking a South Korea naval corvette in 2010, killing 46 sailors. It was not deterred after its cyberattack on Sony Pictures last year (which probably put a permanent end to Hollywood lampooning the regime).
    Furthermore, amid failed policies by the last three U.S. administrations, North Korea has evolved from a basket case devastated by famine in the mid-1990s to an apparently stable power that soon will hold a nuclear Sword of Damocles over its opponents. And Pyongyang also excels at proliferation -- it helped Syria build a plutonium-producing nuclear reactor and is accused of aiding Iran with its ballistic missile program.
    In sum, North Korea is actually becoming a bigger problem. It is adept at harming the free world but stopping just short of actions that would draw serious retaliation. And it has an overconfident dictator who benefits personally from aggression, as it enhances his position with North Korea's military.
    So, what can be done? No U.S. presidential candidate from either party has addressed the North Korean threat in detail, much less explained convincingly how to reduce the risk. There are also persistent rumors in Washington that the Obama administration will follow the bad example of it two predecessors and attempt to trade North Korea its nuclear arsenal for some grand accommodation. What else is John Kerry to do with his remaining year in office?
    A better plan would be to put the regime under pressure and on the defensive. Options exist: the aforementioned blaring of loudspeakers across the DMZ is useless, but defectors from North Korea who broadcast independent media back to those left behind can make a difference. Groups like Free North Korea Radio provide information and hope to dissidents. Like the "samizdat" underground press in the Soviet Union, intellectual and media-related efforts that might seem quaint can actually erode tyrannical regimes over time. They deserve our support.
    Congress is considering the North Korean Sanctions Enforcement Act, which would prod the executive branch to resume targeted sanctions that impeded Pyongyang's cash flow before they were eased in 2007.
    Unfortunately, China engages in increasingly unrestricted trade with North Korea, despite U.N. sanctions. However, we will never know if shaming China for enriching North Korea will put a chill in relations between Beijing and Pyongyang unless we try. Right now, China gets a free pass, and President Obama seems unlikely to raise Beijing's enabling of North Korea at his summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping next month.
    Of course, taking these steps requires the will to influence the political trajectory of North Korea using nonviolent means -- something that is lost on a Washington foreign policy establishment often unable to free itself from the false choice of weak diplomacy or outright war. This latest crisis should be a wake-up call to change course.