This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.
As of this writing, a second Korean war hasn’t broken out. Thank heaven for small mercies.
The exchange of artillery bombardments between North Korea and South Korea is the kind of skirmish that leads to big conflicts. The casualties could be high. This follows North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship in disputed waters last March, and its recent revelation of a major expansion to its nuclear weapons program.
A private group acting like North Korea would be called a terrorist network. The difference is that North Korea has an army, a navy, the beginning of a nuclear arsenal and countless big guns and rockets within range of Seoul.
America has every reason to worry about bombardments and ship sinkings. Given its close alliance to South Korea, the United States would almost automatically be drawn into a north-south conflict.
What’s going on behind closed doors in Pyongyang? There’s no telling, really, though one theory points to political maneuvering as dictator Kim Jong Il prepares to pass off power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un.
To outsiders, the North Korean dictatorship remains a black box. As Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday, “I don’t know the answer to any question about North Korea that begins with the word ‘why.’”
Blaming the dictatorship is an exercise in futility. Condemn it, threaten it with sanctions, it acts belligerent. Make nice to it, send it assistance, it acts belligerent. Every variation of American and international diplomacy produces the same results.
The only point of leverage is China, whose sentimental attachment to the North Korean communists dates back to Mao Zedong and the Korean War. The North Korean government would not exist except for Chinese support. Its nuclear program and warlike behavior would not be happening if the Chinese jerked the chain on its vicious little ally.
It is hard to persuade China’s leaders to even criticize the North Koreans. China typically uses its veto on the U.N. Security Council to block condemnations or sanctions against the Pyongyang dictatorship. Old friendships die hard, apparently.
Which leaves the rest of the world more or less helpless to stop North Korea from doing the kinds of things that are traditionally considered acts of war. If this comes to a major conflict, the Chinese will have buckets of blood on their hands.