The Gambler of North Korea

SEOUL – After a painstaking investigation, South Korea is pointing the finger of blame at North Korea for the sinking of its warship, the Cheonan, on March 26. The debate about how to respond is complicated by the fact that the Cheonan’s sinking does not seem to be a stand-alone event, but was, instead, part of a change in North Korea’s general pattern of behavior. Indeed, North Korea has become increasingly bold and impetuous ever since Kim became ill (probably from a stroke) in August 2008.

In the past, top North Korean leaders tended to calculate carefully the costs and benefits when they acted to put pressure on the outside world. And they were inclined to play only one of their “threat” cards at a time. But in April and May 2009, they threw diplomatic caution to the wind, launching a long-range rocket (as well as various missiles) and conducting a second nuclear test – all in the space of several weeks.