The conflict with North Korea is a Catch-22. On the one hand, ignoring the regime’s provocations guarantees they will continue and will escalate. On the other, the West does not want to risk war and destabilization makes it more likely that corrupt officials will sell expertise, weapons, and even WMDs to high-paying customers. At the moment, there is no viable opposition group that can replace the regime. The West seems stuck, but a proper understanding of the regime’s behavior does offer a way to deter Kim Jong-Il and Kim Jong-Un, his youngest son and successor.
The artillery barrage was part of a methodical escalation. Prior to the attack, Kim Jong-Il and his son met with the military officials in charge of the area from which the artillery would be fired. Shortly before this, the regime showed off a new uranium enrichment site to an American nuclear expert and told him that 2,000 centrifuges had been installed. The North Koreans also shot at a South Korean border post on October 29 and began constructing a lightwater reactor.
These provocations coincide with a purge of the military and the governing political party. Defectors say that older officers are being replaced as it is unlikely that the older leaders will follow a 26-year old with no military experience and no qualifications to lead them beyond his last name. About 1,000 officials in the party have been arrested and 20 to 30 executed to stifle any dissent or potential internal challenges. The simultaneous provocations and purge indicate the two are aimed at a common objective: securing the rise of Kim Jong-Un.
Knowing this, it appears the U.S. has two broad options: Ignore North Korea, denying the regime the tension it seeks, or react and potentially give the regime what it wants. The problem with the first option is that if Kim Jong-Il and his son feel a crisis is necessary for their survival, they will keep upping the ante until they get it. Dismissing them just guarantees greater provocations. That leaves the second option of retaliating, but this must be done in such a way that it discourages future aggression. The key is to cause a backlash among the military he’s trying to secure his hand over. If the provocations are done for stability, then we must make them result in instability. If their goal is to unite the regime, then division is what must happen.