Kim Jong Il's decision to initiate a military attack against South Korea's Yeonpyeong island on November 23rd is an indication of his ongoing desperation and power. When put in context with the succession plan currently underway in North Korea, Kim Jong Il is betting that he will be able to continue his well established pattern of brinksmanship with South Korea and the West while at the same time preserving his legacy among his people and providing a reminder to his son -- Kim Jong-Un -- of what is expected of him as heir apparent.
Historically, the North Korean leader has done well by pushing the envelope and testing the limits of South Korean and western patience. Where else in the world would the sinking of a military vessel in a developed country (as was the case in March of this year with the sinking of South Korea's ship, the Cheonan) and a guilty verdict from an official international inquiry leave the aggressor completely unpunished? Even with the current example of aggression, Mr. Kim has achieved his undoubted objective of ruffling western feathers, causing shudders in global stock markets, and reasserting his authority at home.
The revelation this week that North Korea has constructed a new uranium enrichment facility -- in direct violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1874 and the six party agreement reached in 2005 -- is further evidence that Mr. Kim will make agreements without necessarily having the intention of abiding by them. This presents South Korea and the West with an even more difficult dilemma: if an agreement were to be reached with North Korea that fully addressed the West's concerns about nuclear proliferation, could the western alliance have any reasonable degree of confidence that it will be adhered to in the long term? The answer has to be no.
On the question of China's current and future role in six party talks, China has demonstrated repeatedly that its long-term interest rests with itself and North Korea, and it remains the North's closest ally. Given that neither China nor North Korea's long-term interests are likely to change, it would be unreasonable to assume that either China or North Korea will ever have any other interests than their own at heart, which makes the notion of achieving a lasting and meaningful peace on the Korean peninsula difficult to imagine. To believe that anything else is achievable, given history, is to believe in the tooth fairy. The divided Korean peninsula will remain one of the world's most pressing long-term geostrategic issues.
A realist would suggest that the war that has never ended (on paper) between the South and North will one day need to be ended by military means. This can only be avoided, in due course, if China can be convinced that its long-term interest does not lay solely with North Korea, and the North comes to realize that its economy cannot succeed in isolation. China and South Korea both fear the implosion of the North's economy -- which is closer at hand today than perhaps ever before - and surely agree that their own long-term interests lay in the South's eventual unification with the North.
Mr. Kim's willingness to continue to thumb his nose at the international community and ramp up his belligerent stance against the South implies he is serious about further enhancing his nuclear capability. Even assuming deeper military engagement can be avoided between the North and South for the time being, and Kim Jong-Un eventually becomes the North's leader, a heightened state of military alert is likely to remain a permanent fixture on the Korean peninsula. There is little reason to believe that Son of Kim III will be any different than his father or grandfather with respect to how he runs the country or how he deals with the outside world.
The real challenge now will be for South Korea to avoid its own form of brinksmanship, given that military tensions are at a post-war high. Since the sinking of the Cheonan, President Lee has been under intense pressure to respond militarily to any future provocation by the North. He has stated publically that he will respond with maximum force, should that occur. Mr. Lee would be wise, given his neighbor's temperament, to avoid any actions that may be perceived by Mr. Kim as provocative. Holding military exercises on Yeonpyeong Island, just 12 kilometers from North Korea, was certainly ill advised. Hopefully, Mr. Lee will have the presence of mind not to accept Mr. Kim's invitation to a duel.