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.

As soon as the international community reacted, by adopting United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874, North Korea quickly shifted to a charm offensive aimed at the United States and South Korea. The authorities released two American journalists and a South Korean worker whom they had seized in August 2009 on charges of violating North Korean law.

But when the North Korean regime realized that smile diplomacy did not get it whatever it was they wanted, the country’s rulers shifted back to hostility. This time, the authorities froze South Korean real estate in the Geumgang Mountain tourist zone and, most seriously of all, attacked the Cheonan. The regime even dispatched two spies to Seoul to assassinate Hwang Jang-yop, the highest-level North Korean official ever to defect to South Korea.