There’s a reason rogue regimes such as North Korea try so hard to acquire nuclear capability. It empowers their conventional aggression by protecting them from reprisals that threaten to remove them from power. That’s because the civilized world knows that, if pushed too far, the regimes can use nuclear weapons against undefended targets. Even if the threat to launch is a bluff, it’s not a bluff the United States can afford to call. Kim Jong Un knows that, whatever else happens as a result of his aggressive tactics, nuclear capability means that he’s not likely to end up in a spider hole the way Saddam Hussein did.
That makes provocation a no-lose proposition for the North Korean regime. At worst, from Kim’s point of view, he can challenge his enemies with no consequences that he cares about. (Economic sanctions against North Korea are almost meaningless, at least as long as it has China’s support.) At best, he can create a crisis and then negotiate a “solution” which extracts concessions in return for promises he can later ignore.
The challenge for the United States is to change that calculus without using means that escalate the immediate crisis. Here is one step that would be very meaningful. The United States should announce that it is substantially increasing its naval shipbuilding program. At the same time, the Obama administration should privately inform the Chinese government that if China cannot (or will not) control North Korea, the United States will have no choice but to maintain a permanently increased naval presence in the East and South China Seas.
In short, the Obama administration should put real power behind its “Asia pivot.” That’s the last thing North Korea wants. More important, China wants it even less. You can bet that as soon as the United States made such an announcement — and it could be delayed until after the current crisis if the administration thinks it would be escalatory in the current context — the phone lines between Beijing and Pyongyang would heat up.
The North Koreans believe they can provoke conflict with impunity. Perhaps they can in the short term. But a more capable American Navy, exercising an increased presence in the Northwest Pacific, would be a long-term setback for North Korean and Chinese ambitions. That is a consequence neither regime could ignore the next time North Korea contemplates a new provocation.
At a fundamental level, defense policy is foreign policy. Weakness, real or perceived, invites challenge; strength deters it. Ronald Reagan understood that, which is why he built up American power in the 1980s. Teddy Roosevelt understood it too; his policy was to walk softly while carrying a big stick. If our leaders absorb that lesson today, and apply it with prudence and purpose, the North Koreans may yet have cause to regret that they decided to rattle their sabers.
-Jim Talent served on the Senate Armed Services Committee and is currently a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation and co-chair of the American Freedom and Enterprise Foundation.
First appeared in National Review Online's "The Corner."