North Korea's recent sinking of a South Korean warship was not an inexcusable act of aggression that came out of nowhere. It was an inexcusable act of aggression that had been building up for many years.
Though it was little noted in U.S. news reports, the maritime border between North Korea and South Korea—known as the Northern Limit Line—has been a frequent scene of naval clashes and confrontations over the last decade.
The March 26 incident, which killed 46 South Korean sailors and wounded many more, is by far the deadliest of these attacks and fully worthy of the condemnation it's received from the Obama administration, the U.N. secretary-general, and other world leaders.
But it is not unprecedented. In February 2002, an exchange of naval gunfire killed four South Korean sailors and wounded 18. A similar clash in June 1999 killed at least 17 sailors on a North Korean patrol boat.
According to a well-sourced chronology compiled by the military Web site GlobalSecurity.org, these were but two of at least 10 confrontations since 1999 in which North and South Korean vessels have fired weapons at each other along the Northern Limit Line.
All the incidents have followed a similar pattern. A North Korean patrol boat crosses the borderline; a South Korean vessel warns the boat by radio to back away, then fires a warning shot if there's no reply; at that point, either the two sides retreat or the confrontation escalates.
In most cases (as in the latest attack), North Korean officials deny that their boat crossed the line. Sometimes, they claim that the vessel was chasing illegal Chinese fishing boats (which, in some cases, may have been true). Once, though, after the incident of February 2002, Kim Jong-il's government initiated high-level diplomatic talks and sent North Korean athletes to compete in the Asian Games, which that year were hosted by South Korea. (These steps were interpreted as constituting an apology.) In the latest incident, the "Dear Leader"—as Kim is known in his national propaganda—reverted to form, threatening war if the United Nations so much as imposes sanctions.
Two of these naval skirmishes over the last decade—the first and the next-to-last—seem to have traumatized North Korean leaders the most. In June 1999, a North Korean boat crossed the line and fired the first shot. A South Korean vessel fired back, causing serious damage to the North's boat and killing at least 17 of its sailors. The North's political and military leaders, who had been publicly touting their great power for decades, were reportedly stunned by how swiftly they were defeated.
More recently, in November 2009, a North Korean patrol boat crossed the line. A South Korean vessel fired warning shots; the North fired back; the South then fired in earnest and again inflicted significant damage, setting the boat on fire (though no casualties were reported on either side).
Some speculate that Kim Jong-il may have planned the March 2010 attack as a show of strength, both to the Seoul government and to his own military commanders. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak had already—for good reasons—abandoned his predecessors' "sunshine policy" of outreach toward the North. Kim is also believed to be caught up in succession concerns—he is thought to be ailing and wants his youngest son, Jong Un, to be installed as his successor (just as he succeeded his own father, Kim Il-Sung)—and he may have felt a need to toughen up his image after the humiliation of last November.
You may notice the phrases believed to be, thought to be, and may have in the previous sentence. The fact is, Pyongyang is the most cloistered capital in the world (North Korea's widespread nickname is, after all, the "hermit kingdom"), and nobody on the outside—including U.S. and allied intelligence agencies—knows much of anything about its political machinations.
But this much is known: The Northern Limit Line, which Pyongyang's vessels have frequently crossed, is not exactly an artifact of international law. It was drawn in 1953 by the U.S. military forces that led the wartime United Nations Command; it wasn't officially recognized by North Korea; nor was it mentioned in the 1953 Armistice Agreement, which suspended the fighting. (The Korean War itself has never been declared over. The two countries are still, formally, in a state of war.)
None of this excuses North Korea's March 26 attack, or most of its other confrontations, in the slightest. But it is worth noting that for decades, both sides' naval vessels have been playing cat-and-mouse games—testing alert levels, probing territorial disputes, doing the kinds of things that cold (and not-so-cold) war combatants have done through the ages—and that these games sometimes turn deadly.
Since last week, when intelligence agencies determined that it was a North Korean torpedo that sank the South Korean warship, tensions have ratcheted higher. Pyongyang cut off all communication with Seoul. Seoul declared Pyongyang to be an "arch-enemy."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who just happened to be in Beijing on a diplomatic mission, is pressing Chinese leaders to join in U.N. sanctions against North Korea. The Chinese, who have veto power in the Security Council, are, as usual, leery of the idea, for three reasons. First, they don't want to destabilize an already rocky regime and thus risk the prospect of millions of North Korean refugees rushing across the Chinese border. Second, they're miffed at the Obama administration for selling advanced fighter jets to Taiwan. Third, as a general rule, the more that U.S. military forces in Asia have to focus on dangers in Korea, the less they can allocate to defending the Taiwan straits.
So we're back to the perennial question about the pygmy tyrant of Pyongyang: What to do? Kim Jong-il, like his father before him, is a master at parlaying his weakness into strength. He has no economic resources, no allies (except China), and probably a teetering power base at home. But he does have enough nuclear fuel to build a few A-bombs (whether he's built any, beyond the two exploded in tests, is unknown), and he has thousands of artillery rockets that are a few minutes' flying time from Seoul (as well as some ballistic missiles that could hit Tokyo).
As a kicker, he's cultivated an image of being—and may in fact be—crazy; certainly, he's eccentric and almost certainly desperate. He's kept friends and foes off-guard for years by making them think—perhaps correctly—that, under pressure, he's liable to do anything.
He's like the daredevil in a game of highway chicken who visibly throws his steering wheel out the window, forcing the saner players to accommodate and veer off the road.
In recent years, Kim has miscalculated at this game. He began losing his touch back in 2002, when he thought that threatening to pull out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty and resume reprocessing plutonium would force President George W. Bush to return to the negotiating table. The trick had worked with Bill Clinton; but Kim didn't realize that Bush had no interest in negotiating. (Bush miscalculated as well, thinking Kim would collapse under an American president's grimace; instead, North Korea went ahead and built some A-bombs.)
In 1999, when Kim launched his first naval escapade across the Northern Limit Line, he had just started broad negotiations with South Korea and figured Seoul wouldn't up the ante once the talks had begun. He was wrong.
Who knows how this latest gamble will play out. Some speculate that Kim made the move, hoping that it would frighten the South Korean people into voting out Seoul's current anti-détente government in next month's elections. However, some observers think that Kim has been spoiled by the excess indulgence of the previous two administrations—not realizing that the last few years of northern belligerence have strained the patience of many southerners.
Here, then, is the dilemma. On the one hand, Kim Jong-il cannot be allowed to get away with the aggression of March 26. On the other hand, he knows that he'll suffer no meaningful consequences unless China joins the condemnations. Can some deal be made with China that sways its leaders to go along? This is the big question—and the prerequisite to a solution.
If a deal can be devised, its upshot has to be this: North Korea makes amends or at least acknowledges wrongdoing—then the 1950-53 Korean War has to be put to an end, with borders set, embassies opened, diplomatic forums established. Otherwise, in the games and gambits along the Northern Limit Line or some other stretch of the so-called Demilitarized Zone, the two sides are going to blunder into another, still deadlier war.