Updated at 10:13 a.m. on November 23.
Tensions on the Korean peninsula have bedeviled 12 presidents, and the latest is no exception.
Even before today’s North Korean attack on a South Korean island, the despotic, hermetic regime had been a persistent problem for Barack Obama, just as it had been for his many post-World War II predecessors.
Last week, North Korea revealed a nuclear enrichment facility to a group of American scientists it had invited to its largely isolated country. While American officials had known Pyongyang was working on improving its enrichment capabilities—essential for the production of more advanced nuclear weapons—Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters that the U.S. hadn’t known the regime had gotten that far. When you combine the country’s display of nuclear ambition with what appears by all accounts to be an aggressive and unprovoked attack on the South today, the White House is left in a conundrum. How do you handle a country that has tested nuclear devices, has one of the world’s largest militaries, and won’t seem to listen to reason? So far, the Obama White House hasn’t been able to find any answer better than to muddle through.
A slew of diplomatic activity is sure to come in the following days, including close coordination with the countries involved in the six-party nuclear talks—China, Japan, South Korea, Russia, as well as the U.S. and North Korea itself. Reuters is already reporting that the U.N. Security Council could hold an emergency meeting in the next day or two. Obama, like George W. Bush, realizes that his influence is limited with the desperately poor North Koreans and is best leveraged through China and Japan, who have more trade and currency ties with the regime.
If American diplomatic options are few, its military options even fewer. No one seriously believes the U.S. is in a position to strike North Korea, a regime with more than 1 million soldiers under arms, nuclear devices, and long-range missiles. One reason for caution: With its population of over 12 million, Seoul is just 190 kilometers from North Korea and within easy striking distance for the Communist regime.