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By Attacking Island, North Korea Gets What It Wanted: America's Attention

Kevin Douglas Grant |
November 24, 2010 | 9:27 a.m. PST

Executive Editor

Analysts say North Korea threw what amounted to an international temper tantrum when it shelled South Korea's tiny Yeonpyeong Island, 7.5 miles south of the North Korean border, killing four.

Feeling underappreciated by the United States and South Korea for his own diplomatic efforts, Kim Jong Il turned to his military again, essentially saying "Look what I can do!"

Now, he has President Obama's attention (again), with a boosted American Naval presence on the way and U.S./South Korean military drills in the works.  All the while, China is monitoring our response: "The exercise will include sending the aircraft carrier George Washington and a number of accompanying ships into the region, both to deter further attacks by the North and to signal to China that unless it reins in its unruly ally it will see an even larger American presence in the vicinity."

So what next?

Obama will continue to take an aggressive posture both rhetorically and militarily, acting tough to China and the international community, while minimizing the risk of actual war.  He has been criticized for being too soft on the regime, but leader Kim appears to be acting from a position of weakness:

"There are at least three things Kim will want to secure before he can comfortably hand over the reins [to his son Kim Jong Un]: loyalty to the Young General, economic stability and political security ensuring the regime's grip on power," the AP reports.  "Time may be running out. Health issues notwithstanding, Kim is likely to want to formally anoint his heir in 2012, the centennial of Kim Il Sung's birth, a significant milestone that would cement the family's ruling status in ritualistic North Korea."

In other words, Kim has other priorities than fighting a large-scale military operation.  Instead, he's trying to get the U.S. and South Korea back to the table as his time runs short. Some analysis indicates he may be ready to trade his nuclear program for international food aid.

TIME writes:  "It sounds like a cry for attention from a cold and starving nation that is eager for international fuel and food aid as winter approaches, but hasn't been taught how to ask nicely. Its bellicosity has worked before, so it's trying the same stunts again." 

North Korea's nuclear program has been a flashpoint for diplomatic relations since at least 1993, when it first quit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.  The desperately poor nation has few other cards it can play, so Kim uses the threat of nuclear war to his full advantage: 

"Its nuclear bombs and its unpredictability remain North Korea's most valuable assets, and Pyongyang has played its cards shrewdly over the decades."

South Koreans have been described as having very little appetite for war, but it appears public opinion is shifting after a series of aggressive actions by North Korea.  

The best option for the U.S. is still a cautious one.  North Korea may be weakened and may be acting childish, but it's not wise to punish a child with his finger on the launch button of a nuclear arsenal.



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