There is a real possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula. The cause is not a second North Korean invasion of the South like in June 1950, which was successfully deterred by U.S. and South Korean forces. The danger stems from two combustible trends: A North Korea which mistakenly believes it is invulnerable to retaliation due to its nascent nuclear capabilities, and a South Korea that feels increasingly compelled to react with military force to the string of ever more brash provocations like the artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island.
The shelling of Yeonpyeong had for South Korea much broader effects than the partial evacuation of its 1,600 residents. It forced a temporary closure of Incheon International Airport, the sprawling ultramodern hub of air traffic throughout Asia that stands only 122 km from the shelled island. The artillery flew only days after world leaders converged on Seoul for the G20 summit, undoubtedly causing world leaders to think twice about the next trip given the unpredictability of the North. These periodic crises undercut South Korea’s future bids to host global mega events like the World Cup or the Winter Olympics.
President Lee Myung-bak is forced to respond with calm and measured actions every time the North provokes. The pat responses to the island shelling and the sinking of the Cheonan -- of enhanced military readiness, exercises with the U.S., and diplomatic sanctions -- do not work. The reality is that Pyongyang's provocations are getting more deadly, and that Seoul's strengths are its vulnerabilities: The more affluent, educated, and cosmopolitan South is far more wedded to the peaceful status quo than its northern neighbor, and therefore is forced to tolerate provocations even if they kill soldiers or civilians. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sees this vulnerability and will continue to exploit it to extort concessions from the U.S. and South Korea. This is a losing strategic spiral for the South. It will soon feel compelled to break it.
When the South Koreans respond to this or future provocations, it will likely be a serious but pinpointed display of military force. The purpose would be to stop the cycle of North Korean provocation through deterrence, but it could very well ignite a major war.
To make matters worse, Pyongyang does not see that it is pushing Seoul to the edge. This is because it is under the false impression that its nascent nuclear capabilities make it invulnerable to counterattack. It is no coincidence that the artillery attack took place right after the North revealed its shiny new uranium-based nuclear program to the world. The constant references of late to the "nuclear deterrent" are not mere rhetoric. The North believes it is on a new strategic plane superior to the South and that the U.S. really is deterred.
This is a strategic logic on both sides of the DMZ that is headed toward war. The United States and China have no interest in seeing such an outcome. While China appears to be uninterested in answering U.S. entreaties to stop North Korean provocations, Beijing should do all it can to avert the next provocation by the North if it wants to avoid a major South Korean military response that could either ignite a war or collapse the brittle regime.
Pundits opine that a return to six-party nuclear talks or bilateral U.S.-North Korea negotiations about food, fuel, and security is what the North Koreans want. But having sat down with the North Koreans to negotiate exactly these things during the six-party talks under the George W. Bush administration, I can tell you that such enticements were a part of our negotiations just as they were a part of every U.S. negotiating package dating back to the Clinton and Bush senior administrations, and now the Obama administration. Past agreements, all broken by Pyongyang, have netted the regime some $30 billion in food, energy, and assistance. Kim could signal a return to talks through established bilateral diplomatic channels with the State Department, not by lobbing artillery. Obama knows that Pyongyang wants to extort external assistance for its starving economy through negotiations, but he also knows that Kim is not willing to give up the nuclear programs verifiably and irreversibly. On the contrary, the latest revelations about an enriched uranium path to nuclear capabilities evinces Kim's intentions to make the North the world's next de facto nuclear power. The existence of one finished uranium centrifuge facility, moreover, indicates deep and robust programs elsewhere in the country.
Diplomatic negotiations should be tried, but they will only be an interim step. Talks will only moderately and temporarily impede a runaway nuclear program. Before or after such negotiations, however, North Korean attacks like the artillery shelling of South Korean territory will continue.
So what should the U.S. do? Obama's military exercising with South Korea and Japan is the right first step. But there are two more steps. First, serious consideration should be given to augmenting U.S. troop levels in Korea. This is the ultimate symbol of the deterrence and will impose real costs on the North for its actions, who seek the removal of these forces.
Second, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan should seek a resolution from the UN authorizing the use of force in self-defense at the next North Korean provocation. China will oppose both measures, in which case it should stop North Korea's provocations. Third, the U.S. should enlist Russia to begin informal talks with North Korea about nuclear deterrence. The purpose of such talks would be to undercut any false notions Kim might have that a few nukes in the basement permit him to provoke recklessly. These are extreme measures but they befit the gravity of the situation.
By Victor Cha, a professor at Georgetown University and senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.