Such Middle Eastern trouble spots as Iran and Afghanistan get most of the attention in this country, but North Korea is determined to demonstrate that it is the world's biggest threat to stability. The Obama administration has few good options for dealing with Pyongyang's reckless regime, but the North's shelling of a South Korean island on Tuesday, among the most outrageous of its provocations since the end of the Korean War, shows that the region must be at the top of the diplomatic priority list.
To outside observers, the behavior of North Korean leader Kim Jong Il often seems bizarre. After the North escalated tensions to a height seldom seen in decades with its reported sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan in March, the U.S. and South Korea responded by ending economic assistance and stepping up military readiness. A rational response to the economic sanctions that are strangling the country would be to end them by de-escalating, but punishing Kim only seems to make him more aggressive. North Korean officials recently showed off a worrisome new uranium-enrichment facility to a visiting American scholar, raising fears that the regime's nuclear capabilities are growing. And Tuesday's artillery fire is believed to have killed two South Korean soldiers and injured several more, as well as wounding three civilians.
Close observers, though, see a logic to Kim's madness. Attacking South Korea burnishes the leadership and military credentials of Kim's heir apparent, his son Kim Jong Un. Meanwhile, long experience has taught Pyongyang that aggression can be rewarded; when sticks don't change the regime's behavior, the international community sometimes resorts to carrots, hoping that food aid, closer economic ties or the lifting of some sanctions will improve cooperation. The strategy occasionally even works — until it doesn't anymore.
The top U.S. priorities, now as ever, are to avoid a resumption of all-out war and to prevent North Korea from increasing its nuclear arsenal. But how can that be done when neither sanctions nor rewards seem to have any impact? Experts have been wrestling with that question for decades without coming up with satisfactory answers. Most acknowledge that the key to a breakthrough is China, North Korea's patron. Yet Beijing seems far more interested in keeping the Pyongyang government stable, in order to head off a refugee crisis on its border, than it is in Kim's saber-rattling.
Some analysts think North Korea's goal is to draw the U.S. back into nuclear talks in hopes of winning concessions. Instead, President Obama is probably better off talking to China and Russia in an attempt to find strategic common ground. If there's a way out of this mess, it lies in diplomacy rather than military force.