North Korea Playing the U.S. — Still

Try as he might, Obama can’t escape being a wartime president and foreign-policy-crisis manager. That’s the world in which we live, and it keeps intruding into his desired agenda:

North Korea’s deadly attack on a populated South Korean island dramatically escalated the conflict between the two countries, leaving Seoul and its allies hunting for a response that would stave off more attacks but stop short of sparking war.

This act of provocation was met with tough talk, but produced more questions than answers:

The United Nations, European Union, Japan and others condemned the attack, with Russia and China calling for a cooling of tensions on the peninsula. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Tuesday’s exchange “one of the gravest incidents since the end of the Korean War.”

President Barack Obama strongly affirmed the U.S. commitment to defend South Korea. Mr. Obama called Mr. Lee to say the U.S. stands “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the ally and would work with the international community to condemn the “outrageous” attack, the Associated Press reported.

But what do the flurry of words mean, and what is the value of a shoulder-to-shoulder commitment while South Korea’s ships are at risk and its territory is violated? One senses quite clearly that Obama is being tested. After all, what did he do when Syria violated the UN resolution? What has he done about the Russian occupation of Georgia? The proliferation of non-actions has emboldened the North Koreans, as it has all the rogue states. And now Obama has his hands full.

Before word of the attack, former ambassador and potential 2012 presidential candidate John R. Bolton wrote in reference to the newly discovered nuclear facility in Yongbyon that we’ve been “played” by North Korea ever since the Clinton administration. He does not spare the Bush administration either:

Worse, in President George W. Bush’s second term, an assertive group of deniers in the State Department and the intelligence community claimed or implied that North Korea did not have a substantial or ongoing uranium-enrichment program. They denied that the North Koreans had conceded as much in 2002 and that there was sufficient evidence of a continuing program. The intelligence community downgraded its confidence level in its earlier conclusion, not because of contradictory information but because it had not subsequently acquired significant new data. State Department negotiators scorned the idea that the North had a serious enrichment capability. …

The last thing Washington should do now is resurrect the failed six-party talks or start bilateral negotiations with the North. Instead, serious efforts need to be made with China on reunifying the Korean peninsula, a goal made ever more urgent by the clear transition of power now underway in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Il faces the actuarial tables. North Korea’s threat will only end when it does, and that day cannot come soon enough.

What is clear is that the North Koreans perceive no downside to acts of aggression against their neighbor. So long as Obama has only words in response, the barrages are not likely to end. And meanwhile, Iran and our other foes look on.