Realistically it’s the only thing he could say, but calling North Korea’s bluff at a moment when it’s even less stable than usual due to internal succession politics is awfully dicey. Time speculates that this morning’s shelling might be a show of strength from incoming Dear Leader Kim Jong-un, who’s allegedly “under the influence of more hawkish generals” and even less of a known quantity than his pop. If South Korea and the U.S. refuse to engage with him, what’s his move then? As a newly anointed dictatorial demigod, he can’t show weakness in front of his military brain trust lest he risk a coup. How far is he willing to go to stand up to the west?
For that matter, how far is Obama willing to go to stop him? Most O critics worry that he’s too weak to risk a confrontation, but I wonder if the bigger worry isn’t that it’s precisely because he’s perceived as weak — and not just by North Korea — that he’ll feel obliged to overcompensate with his response, which could touch off something very bad. Gabriel Schoenfeld at the Weekly Standard had the same idea, as does Thomas P.M. Barnett at Esquire:
Nobody likes to look weak, especially after Obama’s recent trip to Asia and the drawdown there, but we need to remember that North Korea’s aggression is all about solidifying a tenuous regime situation back home. Kim Jong-Il’s quasi-coronation of his son, Kim Jong-Un, a few weeks back was not exactly the sort of decisive hand-off some observers were expecting. So we’ve entered something of a fluid interregnum where the old man hasn’t quite exited the scene and the new kid hasn’t quite taken over and everybody surrounding them is either jostling for position or feeling awfully nervous. That’s a recipe for erratic behavior, all right, but if we get too pushy in reply, we might find ourselves not knowing exactly who we’re shoving or what sort of further reaction it might trigger. These are the worst conditions for engaging in counter-brinkmanship, so Gates, Hillary, et al had better err on the side of doing too little and moving too slowly.
Leslie Gelb argues that even though war is now closer than it’s been in decades, it’s still not that close since both sides know it would mean near-total devastation on the peninsula. Seoul would be left in ruins and the NorK regime would end up decapitated, ergo there’s no rational reason this should escalate any further. That’s true at the macro level, just as it’s also true that North Korea has behaved more or less rationally in keeping a mostly cold peace since 1953, but as noted above, at the micro level you have a bunch of actors here who are all under enormous pressure to show strength by calling each others’ bluffs. What’s more, no one knows just how fragile the succession process inside North Korea might be; if there’s a nucleus of generals who doubt the abilities of Kim the younger, they may decide that the state’s doomed to collapse in the near term anyway in which case they might as well go out with a bang. Gelb’s “solution” to all this, such as it is, is to bring some U.S. naval assets into the region (a carrier strike group is already in the area) and then head back to the Security Council for the ceremonial slapping of the wrist, replete with weak sanctions that China will hopefully agree to after objecting, naturally, to much stronger ones. No doubt that’ll happen, but I think there’s also going to be an invitation to North Korea from the U.S. and South Korea to restart talks if they’re willing to make some sort of face-saving token concession first. What that might mean and whether it’ll involve the new enrichment facility (which wouldn’t really be a token concession), I don’t know, but the goal right now/as always is simply to calm them down and get them talking instead of shooting. The One’s always been a fan of that approach. Is he still?
Update: Check out the roll call of administration officials meeting in the White House situation room to hash out a response. This is most assuredly a five-alarm fire.