North Korea's leaders demonstrated yesterday that they are the masters of brinksmanship, with an artillery barrage on a South Korean island that killed or wounded more than a dozen soldiers and civilians. Even by North Korean standards it was an audacious attack. South Korean civilians had not been targeted in this way since the North blew up a Southern airliner in 1987, killing 115. This was the first artillery attack on the South since the Korean War.
The attack was even more brazen than the March sinking of the South's Cheonan warship, which killed 46 sailors. In that case, the North was "subtle" enough—attacking via a submarine—that Seoul felt compelled to prepare a detailed report proving Pyongyang's guilt. While there is no ambiguity this time about the perpetrator, discerning North Korea's intentions is more difficult.
Pyongyang's latest provocation appears to be an effort to rally the public around the regime, as well as a cry for attention from the Obama administration.
Confronting his own mortality, dictator-for-life Kim Jong Il recently selected three family members and his most trusted general to succeed him when he is no longer able to rule. Little is known about this "Gang of Four." Son Kim Jong Eun can strike as stern a pose as any 27-year-old with lingering baby fat can, but he spent his formative years in peace-loving Switzerland. His uncle, Jang Song Taek, is widely seen as a technocrat who has traveled abroad frequently. Analysts are divided as to whether he is a reformer or hardliner. Even less is known about Jang's wife, Kim Kyong Hui (Kim Jong Il's sister) or the fourth gang member, Vice Marshall Ri Yong Ho.
Kim Jong Il and the Gang of Four know that all-out war would be suicidal, but they have learned over the decades that provocations have few downsides. Even after the sinking of the Cheonan, trade with South Korea remained steady, while that with China increased.
Meanwhile, there may be a need for North Korea's new leaders to demonstrate their fitness to rule, both to the North's million-man military and to the public more broadly. It's happened before: The provocations of the 1980s can be seen as part of Kim Jong Il's efforts to consolidate his power within the military. The regime has also promised to build a "strong and powerful nation" by 2012 and may view military sucker punches as one way to accomplish that. Indeed, since Kim had a stroke in the summer of 2008, the North has engaged in a series of provocations and shown little interest in the six-party nuclear talks.
The question then becomes, how is the outside world to deal with a North Korean regime being pushed and pulled by these internal dynamics?
Neither engagement nor confrontation with the North has elicited the desired response. The two "breakthroughs" that we did see, in 1994 and 2007, proved to be false dawns. The South tried 10 years of engagement, while the Bush administration tried six years of confrontation, and neither proved effective. That may have been due to the fact that the two governments worked at cross purposes, but that has not been the case for the past two years. Presidents Obama and Lee Myung-bak may have come up short on a trade deal between America and South Korea, but they see eye to eye when it comes to their desire to take a harder line on the North.
Yet this approach is not working any more than earlier experiments with carrots and sticks did. Cracking down on the North's overseas financial activities and interdicting ships suspected of transporting weapons and/or nuclear materials is all well and good, but this has not stopped the North from jump-starting its plutonium- and uranium-based nuclear weapons programs. It is also impossible to interdict all of North Korea's illicit trade shipments.
America and its allies now find themselves in a quandary. Unless we are prepared to fight a third war that would likely cause a million casualties and cost a trillion dollars, we must take the military option off the table. With harder sanctions not working to pacify Pyongyang, that leaves negotiations as the only viable path forward. Even though the Obama administration is beset by an array of challenges both at home and abroad, it has no choice but to make North Korea a higher priority than it has to date. The Council on Foreign Relations has described the Obama administration's North Korea policy efforts as "half-hearted." America's North Korea nuclear envoy, Stephen Bosworth, already has a day job running one of the leading foreign policy graduate schools.
Negotiations with the North will have a higher likelihood of success if realistic goals are set. Denuclearization is a wonderful objective, but given that the North became a nuclear power in 2006, the best that we can hope for in the short- to medium term is to cap their program. Halting their production of nuclear material and preventing proliferation to other countries are worthy diplomatic goals to pursue.
Ultimately, of course, this problem will only resolve itself permanently once the Kim regime no longer rules in Pyongyang. But until that day comes—and despite efforts to destabilize the regime with sanctions, we can't necessarily assume that day will come soon—the rest of the world needs to adapt to the reality of a North Korean regime in flux and, on yesterday's evidence, prone to violent outbursts.
Mr. Beck is the Council on Foreign Relations-Hitachi research fellow at Keio University in Tokyo.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.