North Korea’s failed satellite launch is only the most recent incident to join a long line of provocations gone unpunished by the United States and the wider international community. Every attempted assassination – both successful and unsuccessful – of South Korean leaders, first ladies, cabinet members, government officials and hundreds of civilians throughout the 1960s, 70s and 80s has been met with one sanctions regime after another, which has not deterred North Korea’s aggression. North Korea’s testing of partially malfunctioning nuclear devices in 2006, followed by a more successful try in 2009, demonstrated weakness, but also a strong commitment to building an atomic arsenal. In every case, the Combined Forces Command (CFC) – the joint U.S.-South-Korean command has let the North go unpunished.
In President Obama’s Prague speech, he famously condemned North Korea’s rocket launch of April 2009, saying ‘Rules must be binding. Violations must be punished. Words must mean something.’ Several years later, however, and despite considerable provocation from North Korea, we are still yet to seem rules that are binding, violations punished or words that mean anything. Instead, the familiar cycle of warning-followed-by-provocation-followed-by-warning has repeated itself in Obama’s denunciations of North Korea’s satellite launch. So how and why have North Korea managed to dodge America’s normal rules of deterrence?
Firstly, North Korea’s economic weakness and recent power transition has created an instability which could see a total collapse of the regime, which would unravel its food distribution network and lead to a full scale humanitarian crisis. Secondly, North Korea’s wild and aggressive ‘fight talk’ against South Korea and the West shows a touchy eagerness to plunge into a full scale war given the chance. North Korea’s abnormal behaviour and rhetoric seems to have convinced the leaders of the CFC that calling North Korea’s bluff through normal rules of deterrence is not worth the risk. Moreover, the fact that the United States is being deterred by a weak, crack-pot opponent sporting a collection of malfunctioning nuclear devices is not something they will ever admit to, but the mist of uncertainty surrounding North Korea’s nuclear capabilities has exposed a further layer of anxiety about North Korea that has prevented it from acting. South Korea holds back from hitting North Korea hard for fear of the short term instability it would inevitably cause, as well as having to deal with an expensive reunification process
It is right that given the potential destruction they could inflict upon South Korea and the Japanese, North Korea should be treated with caution. However, rather than asking how far North Korea has to tread before ‘crossing the line’, it’s starting to look like the better question to ask whether the line exists at all.