For virtually every day in the past week, North Korea has managed to concoct a fresh provocative announcement aimed at Washington. On Friday, ruler Kim Jong Un was reported to have ordered preparations for missile strikes against the United States and South Korea; on Saturday, Pyongyang declared that the two Koreas were back to a "state of war;" on Sunday, Mr. Kim announced that the regime’s nuclear arsenal would be expanded "in quality and quantity." Tuesday’s announcement was that the Yongbyon nuclear reactor, used to produce plutonium for bombs, would be restarted.
Could this untested, 30-year-old dictator be preparing to start a war with the United States or South Korea? The worrying reality is that it is virtually impossible for outsiders to know for sure. But history and observable facts — such as the absence of unusual military movements, which the White House cited Monday — strongly suggest that North Korea is playing an old and familiar game: It is stoking a crisis atmosphere in order to rally support behind the regime and to pressure the United States and its allies into opening negotiations.
Though there’s no telling if North Koreans are being swayed, some in the West are: Predictable calls can be heard for the Obama administration to "engage" with the Kim regime. While logical-sounding, the problem with pursuing such proposals is that they would merely convince Pyongyang that its old playbook for winning favours still works. As previous U.S. administrations have learned the hard way, answering provocations with diplomacy will not lead to concessions by North Korea — only to another round of provocations.
The Obama administration so far has responded well to Pyongyang, signaling resolve by disclosing training flights over South Korea of B-2 bombers and deploying two ships with anti-missile capabilities closer to the peninsula. Even if North Korea is unlikely to launch a major attack, there is a real danger that it could try something smaller, like the assaults on South Korean targets it carried out in 2010. South Korea’s government has vowed to respond this time, so the United States must be ready for the possibility that a skirmish could lead to a military escalation.
What the administration really needs, however, is a new strategy for answering the provocations. Diplomacy hasn’t worked; neither has pressuring China to restrain the Kim regime. What has are financial sanctions targeted at the ruling elite; the freezing of accounts in a Macau bank by the George W. Bush administration appeared to prompt paroxysms in Pyongyang. Though plenty of sanctions have been applied to North Korea, the U.S. Treasury could still do more to cut off relations between international banks and North Korea.
The United States and South Korea also ought to answer North Korea’s bellicose declarations with a public relations campaign of their own, calling the world’s attention to the horrific gulag system that enslaves an estimated 150,000 North Koreans. Mr. Kim should get the message that provocations will yield not rewards but greater pressure on his assets and international censure.