Jeff Jacoby

North Korea runs unchecked

By Jeff Jacoby
Globe Columnist / December 1, 2010

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FAIL TO forcefully confront a thug and you generally guarantee that his thuggish behavior will continue. That’s true of schoolyard bullies and urban criminals; it’s no less true of rogue states run by barbaric gangsters. Yet when it comes to the pathological regime in North Korea, the conventional wisdom throws up its hands and laments that there are no good options for confronting Kim Jong-il over his aggressive provocations.

North Korea’s attack on a South Korean island last week — a 50-minute barrage that left four people dead and reduced dozens of homes to smoking ruins — was an act of war. It marked the first direct artillery attack on South Korean territory since the 1953 armistice that halted the Korean War. And what price has Pyongyang paid for its lethal assault? So far, none.

The shelling of Yeonpyeong Island was only the latest outrage for which North Korea has gone unpunished. A few days earlier there’d been the revelation of its new, state-of-the-art uranium enrichment plant. Stanford University nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker returned from the North to report that the “astonishingly modern’’ facility contains as many as 2,000 centrifuges capable of being “readily converted to produce highly enriched uranium bomb fuel.’’ And it was just eight months ago that a North Korean torpedo sank the Cheonan, a gunboat patrolling South Korean waters. The attack came without warning, and killed 46 South Korean sailors.

Yet for none of these crimes and provocations has there been any meaningful reprisal — just as there was none last year when North Korea illegally detonated a nuclear weapon and launched ballistic missiles in violation of a UN Security Council ban.

Yes, the United States last week dispatched an aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, to take part in naval exercises with South Korean forces in the Yellow Sea. And yes, South Korea’s president fired his defense minister and warned of “enormous retaliation’’ to ensure that North Korea “cannot make provocations again.’’ But whatever resolve those actions conveyed was promptly undercut by US Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the Obama administration’s special envoy on North Korea, who told reporters in Beijing that US and Chinese authorities agreed “on the subject of how . . . to bring about a resumption of the Six-Party process.’’

That, however, is exactly what Kim Jong-il wants: a return to a diplomatic dog-and-pony show that confers prestige on his regime, yet never actually derails Pyongyang’s nuclear procurement and proliferation.

Isn’t talking about talks — and feckless talks, at that — an impotent way to respond to such a deliberate and deadly aggression? Well, yes, say the foreign-policy “realists,’’ but what else can be done? “Ultimately, you have to talk with them,’’ a specialist at the Carnegie Endowment told The New York Times. “You have to bargain, because if you don’t, this is what they do. They make things worse. They create a crisis.’’

Happily, there are signs that the Obama administration is beginning to have second thoughts about the wisdom of engagement. It has resisted China’s call for “emergency’’ talks with North Korea, on the grounds that reopening negotiations would amount to a reward for bad behavior.

As one administration official put it Monday, “We’re trying to get out of this cycle where they act up and we talk.”

Giving the diplomatic cold shoulder to Kim Jong-il’s regime is an important step in the right direction. But there is much more that the president can do.

He can require financial institutions worldwide doing business with the United States to freeze any North Korean assets. He can order the Navy to interdict all North Korean vessels in international waters, vigorously enforcing Security Council resolutions that authorize the North’s shipping to be searched for illicit weapons. He can step up support for North Korean defectors and activists working to put pressure on the regime. He can send stealth fighters to fly over Pyongyang — a reminder to Kim Jong-il, as John Noonan suggests in the Weekly Standard, “that we have the means to bypass his massive military infrastructure.’’

Above all, he can tell the inconvenient truth: The thugs who rule North Korea commit atrocities with impunity because the civilized world has been unwilling to confront them. It is time for that unwillingness to end, and for America and its allies to seek regime change in Pyongyang.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at