Imagine you have a neighbor whom you don’t like. It’s not just that you’re annoyed when he dumps leaves on your side of the fence; you really hate this guy. You hate his voice, his mouthy political beliefs, and his annoying friends. One day, when his dog gets close to your driveway, you just… run the little fur ball over a few times. When he finds out, your neighbor is devastated. Who could have done such a thing? Then he notices the tire tracks leading to your garage. “Those could be anyone’s oversize Hummer tracks,” you insist. For good measure, you threaten to sue the grump if he presses charges.
Sound crazy? It should, but that’s what North Korea just did to its southern neighbor.
Without any provocation, North Korea secretly torpedoed a South Korean patrol boat near the Northern coastal waters. The boat sank, killing 46 South Korean soldiers. The ensuing investigation yielded the remains of a torpedo and irrefutable evidence that the rogue state was responsible.
North Korea responded by insisting that all of the evidence was fabricated. If South Korea declares otherwise, North has threatened to start an all out war, despite sanctions.
As if we weren’t already convinced, the North Koreans are crazy. They have little to lose – their economy is a wreck as is most of their infrastructure – and so much to gain in potential concessions.
They do this sort of thing all the time. And it usually works.
Perhaps their greatest success came in 1993 when their nuclear weapons program was first exposed.They responded by “starting” to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty. After frenzied international negotiations, the Koreans agreed to give up their nuclear weapons program in exchange for oil and two free nuclear reactors that couldn’t be easily used for weapons manufacturing. The deal was never fulfilled, but its mere existence made it clear the North Koreans could improve their bargaining position with threats.
But North Korea’s bargaining tactics in 1993 weren’t mere happenstance, they were gleaned from decades of experience threatening the US and her allies. Since a cease fire was declared in the Korea War in 1953, the North has regularly tested the resolve of its neighbor. Prior to 1993, they didn’t win many concessions, but they learned an important lesson – they don’t need to fear military retaliation.
Take 1968’s Blue House Raid. Thirty-one North Korean commandos secretly crossed the border to assassinate the South Korean president, Park Chung Hee. They managed to get within a few blocks of the presidential residence before police stopped them. In the ensuing firefight, 28 commandos were killed and one was captured. According to the prisoner, the US embassy had also been a target. North Korea was essentially unpunished for this outrage.
Just three days later, the North Korean navy captured a US spy ship, the USS Pueblo. The Pueblo’s crew claimed to be operating in international waters, but the North Koreans claimed otherwise. They fired on the Pueblo killing one crew member. Then they boarded the Pueblo and sailed her to the Korean coast. The crew was held in Korea for 11 months, and no rescue attempts were made. Only after the US wrote an official apology, admitting that the ship had been spying, and promised the US would cease spying did the North Koreans finally release the surviving crew members.
The USS Pueblo remains in North Korea where it is used as a museum ship to illustrate American “imperialism.” After murdering an American sailor and capturing a US naval vessel, North Korea was punished with a free propaganda showpiece.
There is perhaps no better example of North Korea’s seeming immunity than the world’s most expensive tree trimming: Operation Paul Bunyan. In the 1970s, a tree in the Joint Security Area (JSA) of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) was so tall that it obscured the summertime view of a United Nations Command checkpoint in the JSA. The North Koreans took advantage of this blind spot and repeatedly attempted to kidnap personnel working in the checkpoint.
To remedy the situation, a team of Korean and United Nations personnel set out to trim the tree. As they started their task, a group of North Korean soldiers appeared and ordered the tree trimming stopped. When they refused, the North Korean soldiers attacked. They killed the trimmers’ commander, Captain Arthur Bonifas. Another American soldier, Lieutenant Mark Barrett, was hacked to death with an axe.
The United States responded with a massively expensive show of force. Sixteen engineers armed with chainsaws, guarded by 60 soldiers, were sent to cut down the tree. To further ensure their safety, they were covered by South Korean commandos, attack helicopters, F-4 fighters, F-5 fighters, B-52s, tanks, artillery, and the task force of the aircraft carrier Midway. All told, 813 men were directly involved in the tree trimming. In case unexpected war broke out, 12,000 American troops were ordered to South Korea.
This massive operation did have its rewards. The tree was trimmed.
The sinking of the Cheonan is nothing new for North Korea. The rogue state’s brinkmanship – in the form of cross-border raids, clandestine invasion tunnels under the border, and its secret nuclear program – has killed scores of US and Korean servicemen. In most cases, the hermit kingdom goes unpunished. In others, like the Pueblo Incident, it emerges with valuable propaganda fodder. They’re probably asking, “why will it be any different this time?” Who knows? Maybe they’ll get more concessions. God knows they need whatever help they can get.
As the North Koreans doubtlessly say about their foreign policy: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.