It is hard to recall a better example of successful deterrence than what failed to happen on Monday, Dec. 20, on the Korean peninsula. That was the planned date of a South Korean artillery drill on Yeonpyeong Island, just seven and half miles from the North Korean mainland, but 50 miles from Incheon, the nearest South Korean port. Determined to intimidate Seoul into calling off the artillery exercise -- 94 minutes of live fire -- Pyongyang issued a veritable cascade of threats.
First, the North Korean Foreign Ministry officially declared that because the South was so reckless, the matter would be left entirely in the hands of the military command, which had been given full freedom of action. Ratcheting it up from there, the North Korean military spokesman declared that if the South fired its guns at all, their reaction would be: fierce, devastating, drastic, and/or catastrophic, depending on the translation. But the highest note in the crescendo came from Sin Son-ho, the dapper North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, who solemnly warned that if war broke out, it would not be confined to the Korean peninsula and might easily spread worldwide.
In the event, the South Koreans fired some 1,500 howitzer shells, and North Korea fired nothing back, except for the lame complaint of their military spokesman: "The South's vile military provocations do not deserve even a passing notice."
Ominous is the right tone in the threatening business, not wild exaggeration, as we all learned in my elementary school in Palermo, Sicily, from the luckier kids whose fathers were ranking Mafiosi. Yet despite its overheated language, North Korea had credibility on its side: Just a month earlier, on Nov. 23, it did react to a Southern live-fire drill on Yeonpyeong Island with an artillery barrage that wrecked dozens of houses, damaged and set afire military base buildings, wounded 18 civilians, and killed four, including two South Korean marines. It also frightened the population at large, which knows full well that the North has tens of thousands of guns, howitzers, mortars, rockets, and missiles that could quickly devastate the capital city of Seoul, whose northern edges are less than 25 miles from the border.
In very different ways, that bloody episode in November marked a low point: not only for North Korea, whose aggression was entirely blatant, but also for South Korea, whose deterrence has plainly failed; for the U.N. Security Council, which was reduced to impotence by China's refusal to condemn North Korea; and for various peace-mongering interlopers, who foolishly echoed the Security Council's dispiriting call for "restraint" from both sides.
Even amid that inane company, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter stood out: His own spectacularly ill-judged response was to call for bilateral U.S.-North Korean talks. Nothing sounds more logical -- after all, only madmen talk to themselves as opposed to an interlocutor, and it is with enemies that one must talk, even more so than with friends.
But in that particular case, "bilateral" would have meant to talk about the Korean peninsula without the government of South Korea at the table -- giving the greatest possible political victory to Pyongyang by confirming in spades its central claim that it is the only true Korean government, while South Korea is a mere American puppet. Without seemingly understanding what he was saying, Carter explained the need for bilateral talks by noting that "Leaders in Pyongyang consider South Korea's armed forces to be controlled from Washington." Hence the very fact of negotiating at all would have been amply destructive, simultaneously delegitimizing South Korea's democratic government and anointing the bizarrely monstrous Kim dynasty as Korea's sole legitimate rulers.
Only a month later, and just a day before the momentous Dec. 20 non-event, there was more ill-conceived and damaging interloping in conjunction with the visit to North Korea of Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico. As a seasoned former envoy who had dealt with the regime before, Richardson made all the right moves, said nothing damaging, and emerged with the worthwhile North Korean promise to allow the entry of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear inspectors once again. But accompanying Richardson was the supposed North Korea expert Tony Namkung (he has claimed he has been there 30 times -- always a bad sign) who played the "useful idiot" role to perfection, with the added resonance of speaking from Pyongyang itself. Regarding the imminent Yeonpyeong live-fire drill, his words only added credibility to Northern threats, while seeking to undermine Southern resolve: "There is no doubt in my mind that there will be a [North Korean armed] response," said Namkung. "The only issue is whether they will once again target civilians [as well].… the [North Korean] military has said that there can be no forgiveness, period."
Fortunately, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his ministers and military advisors knew better than to listen to the U.N. Security Council, Jimmy Carter, the likes of Namkung, or indeed North Korean threats. They had finally realized that when it came to deterrence, they had a lot of catching up to do.
Seoul had done nothing whatsoever to punish the North for the Nov. 23 Yeonpyeong bombardment -- leading many in the South to wonder why so much money had to be spent on the latest and best weapons for the South Korean armed forces if they were never to be used. By then many realized that if the South had acted more vigorously beforehand, against an even deadlier attack -- the March 26 sinking of the South Korean navy corvette Cheonan that left 46 sailors dead -- it might have prevented the November barrage.