A quick note on the North Korean interception of an American spy plane over the waters near the Korean Peninsula.
Lest there be any doubt, this is an extremely serious development. It’s also a fairly predictable development. You may have been noticing out of the corner of your eye those almost daily warnings out of North Korea: there’s going to be a great disaster, we’ll repel a US attack, the US will be devoured by flames, the world will be trampled under by a race of gigantic goblins, etc.
We are keeping the North Koreans on the back-burner. But they want to be on the front-burner. So they’re continuing with a pattern of escalations and provocations until we put them there. This is simply the first time they’ve resorted to what can be regarded as a military provocation.
What the North Koreans want is direct talks with the US. Many of us believe that we should have done that a long time ago — not because of the North Koreans provocations but because it is in our interests to do so, usually a sufficient cause. The combined wisdom of the administration — on this issue a deeply-divided administration — thinks otherwise.
Now the North Koreans are moving into really, really dangerous territory to get our attention. Let’s stop for a moment to observe just how provocative but also how delicately calibrated this event seems to have been.
The North Koreans not only intercepted the US spy plane, one of the planes apparently “painted” the US plane. That is to say, it locked onto it with its weapons, as though it were preparing to fire.
As a number of news accounts have noted, if the American plane had had a fighter escort, that might well have led them to open fire on the North Koreans. Of course, the American plane did not have one, as the North Koreans well knew. Thus, they could get away with an extremely provocative action, knowing there was nothing we could do about it and that the situation would be unlikely to spin out of control.
The US now says that it will keep flying those spy planes and give them fighter escorts. Given the North Koreans’ provocation that is the only possible response. However, we are moving into extremely dangerous territory here. The North Koreans are masters of brinksmanship. But as I once saw former Clinton administration official Wendy Sherman say in a TV interview, “they don’t know when to stop.”
What’s more, the situation is not the same as it was in 1994.
Kim Il-Sung was the founder of North Korea, an extremely experienced hand and a charismatic leader. He had the more or less unquestioned support of the entire North Korean elite. None of those attributes apply to his son Kim Jong-Il. That makes North Korea much less predictable, since he and others who are controlling all this may have to prove their toughness to domestic critics.
The important point is that we need to send those planes up with fighter escorts but we cannot do so and continue to treat the situation there as something on the back burner. It’s a delicate, dangerous situation which will require our full attention, and a simultaneous show of military resolution and diplomatic seriousness. One without the other could lead us toward disaster.