North Korea has fired an intensive artillery barrage at a South Korean island, killing two South Korean soldiers and setting dozens of buildings ablaze. Experts say the attack is somehow linked to the transfer of power from North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to his son, Kim Jong-un.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has told his own military to ”respond sternly” but also to avoid aggravating the situation, which is a pretty narrow line to walk with such an unpredictable, irrational enemy. But it’s hard to envision a feasible alternative: The fact that North Korea is once again behaving like an 11-year-old juvenile delinquent with a mean streak argues strongly for responding to force with greater, even overwhelming force. The fact that the delinquent in question is armed with nuclear weapons and the world’s largest arsenal of artillery — much of it aimed at downtown Seoul, a city of more than 10 million people — takes that approach off the table.
The only strategic option is to play for time, putting off confrontation until North Korea collapses in upon itself, as it inevitably must. That’s when the fun will really start, as South Korea and China maneuver for position. Neither country is particularly eager to take responsibility for the mess that North Korea has become, but neither wants to surrender that role to the other.
As I’ve noted before, some problems can only be managed, not solved. North Korea continues to epitomize that kind of challenge.