At first glance, the news coming out of North Korea would seem to have nothing to do with President Obama’s dispiriting retreat on Syria. Young dictator Kim Jong-un’s mad regime needs no foreign incentives or influences to impel it toward provocations or abuses. Thus, the news that–in violation of its six-year-old promise to the Bush administration to dismantle its nuclear reactor–steam is emerging from a reconstructed facility is hardly surprising. The North Koreans already have enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons and it will, according to the New York Times, take years for the reactor at the Yongbyon complex to produce more of the material. The conventional wisdom about this is that the cash-starved regime is hoping to entice the West to once again bribe it to desist from further nuclear work. Since such tactics have often worked in the past, it’s hard to blame Dennis Rodman’s buddy from seeing if he can squeeze more concessions out of the United States knowing his country’s status as a nuclear power gives him impunity.
But coming as this does just months after Pyongyang conducted its third nuclear test, which was accompanied by bluster threatening nuclear attacks on South Korea and anyone else it can reach if more international sanctions are imposed on it, it might be a mistake to put this down as just business as usual in North Korea. Though most Americans ignore the country except when its goofy leader poses with Western nitwits who come to visit, the heavily armed North is always a hair trigger away from starting a shooting war along the 38th parallel that would immediately involve the U.S. in a conflict that would be the opposite of “incredibly small.” While predicting the actions of a country as crazy as North Korea is impossible, it would be a mistake to think that the basketball fan running it hasn’t been watching the dismaying spectacle of U.S. indecision and impotence on Syria and drawing his own conclusions. Most of us have been rightly worried about the impact of the president’s decisions on Iran’s conduct. But perhaps we should be just as worried about whether Kim Jong-un is thinking such a moment of American weakness is the perfect opportunity for him to stage another provocation along the border or even something more ambitious.
The details about North Korea’s blatant violations of the nuclear agreements it made with the West are bad enough if viewed only in the context of a divided peninsula that the Communist regime shares with a prosperous and democratic republic in the south. Previous administrations have repeatedly fallen for what former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates called Pyongyang’s tactic of selling the West “the same horse twice.” The spectacle of President Obama buying into Russia’s offers to deal with Syria’s chemical weapons may certainly encourage the North to think they should at least try to blackmail an American president who shows a clear aversion to confrontation.
But though this administration has so far refused to play along with that game, the assumption that the North Koreans are all talk when it comes to threats may be proved wrong if an insecure dictator thinks the U.S. is weak. Should he draw the conclusion that an Obama who is unable to get Congress or public opinion behind a limited strike on Syria would be similarly impotent should Korea blow up, the consequences could be catastrophic.
As much as the president and his supporters are trying to spin the Syria fiasco as a limited event that won’t impact his ability to govern, this sort of weakness can’t be contained to one country or even one region. We’ve already seen Russia moving to try to fill the vacuum Obama has created in the Middle East. Don’t be surprised if the maniacal North Korean regime thinks it can play the same game with potentially awful consequences for its neighbors and the world.