Last week North Korea ratcheted up tensions with the United States and South Korea by opening fire on Yeonpyeong island with artillery, killing two South Korean Marines and two civilians.
The attack comes just eight months after the North Koreans sank a South Korean warship, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors — that attack was in what
This last time the South Koreans at least returned fire, albeit a bit slowly.
The North Koreans claim this attack, and another shower of artillery fire which landed near, but not on the island over the weekend, are in response to joint U.S./South Korean naval exercises in what both sides claim are their territorial waters.
This is far from the first time both sides have exchanged shots, and is unlikely to be the last — especially given that the Korean War never officially ended with a peace treaty, but with an armistice.
The problem here is that our response and South Korea‘s as well has been anything but strong.
Sharply worded statements and letters of condemnation only go so far.
Kim Jong Il, the North Korean dictator, is a bully. Like any bully he will continue to push until someone pushes back.
Worse, it the constantly shifting “redline.”
Originally, it was made clear to the North Koreans that the line they could not cross without eliciting a response from the U.S. military was to test a nuclear weapon.
Then they tested one, and we fired off a sharply worded letter expressing our disapproval.
So then they tested another one. Again, we wagged our finger, told them “no,no“ and wrote a letter.
Now cross-border harassing fire with small arms has been going on for decades and no one has done a whole lot about it. No one was going to kick off a war over a few bullets.
But when we did nothing to check his nuclear ambitions, Kim decided to try a little more provocation — and sunk a war ship in what everyone but him recognized as international waters — according to international law that was an act of war.
We did, well, precisely nothing. Another sharply worded letter and a finger wagging from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
So now this, artillery fire, dead soldiers, worse, dead civilians, and again everyone is pitching a fit, but no one is actually doing anything.
The message of weakness this sends to rouge states such as North Korea and Iran is bad enough. But what message does this send to our allies?
Most of the developed Pacific Rim nations are our friends. Most have signed on to nonproliferation because they believed we would protect them and they therefore did not need nuclear weapons.
But we are not protecting South Korea. By treaty obligation we are supposed to treat an attack on South Korean soil as an attack on our own.
If our allies cannot rely on us to protect them, and to enforce nonproliferation they are going to have to think very hard about their treaty obligations to us. What happens if we lose bases in Japan or Australia? The strategic situation becomes difficult at best.
Worse, the Japanese, New Zealand, the Australians and others have to start looking at obtaining nuclear weapons of their own in order to check North Korea. So does South Korea.
Suddenly the strategic situation in the Pacific becomes all the more dangerous. And the world is suddenly a scarier place.
Like it or not, and it‘s obvious the current administration does not, we are the most powerful nation on Earth. That status brings with it certain obligations. We must stand by our allies, we must occasionally behave, not like a bully, but rather like the big brother who steps in to deal with the bully who tries to take away little kids’ lunch money. Who cares if we get called a bully?
As Peter Parker said, “with great power comes great responsibility.”
We have the power, we must stop abdicating our responsibility. As dangerous as the world is, it is only made more so by our withdrawal from the world stage.
All IMHO, of course.
(Patrick Richardson is the managing editor of the Columbus Advocate and the Baxter Springs News. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org).