- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 23, 2010

North Korea reminded the international community why it is one of the world’s premier rogue states by launching an unprovoked artillery barrage on a South Korean town. The main difference between this attack and previous inexplicable acts of violence from Pyongyang is that this time the world faces a nuclear power.

North Korea lobbed about 50 shells on the island of Yeonpyeong, killing at least two South Korean marines and wounding more than a dozen troops and civilians. This comes eight months after the sinking of the South Korean patrol ship Cheonan, which an international investigation found was the result of a North Korean torpedo attack and the United States denounced as an act of aggression.

Pyongyang watchers analyze these incidents in the context of the succession of Kim Jong-un to the supreme leadership post currently occupied by his father, Kim Jong-il. But the shelling also came shortly after North Korea revealed a new facility for producing highly enriched uranium that could be used to augment Pyongyang’s growing nuclear arsenal. In the wake of the shelling, President Obama’s special envoy, Stephen Bosworth, reiterated that the United States will not re-engage the six-party denuclearization talks until North Korea shows it intends to abide by the 2005 agreement “to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs … at an early date.” We wonder what part of “new facility for producing highly enriched uranium” the Obama administration doesn’t understand.

In the larger context, this incident illustrates what happens when rogue states are appeased. Imagine a comparable scenario involving Iran, a larger, wealthier and potentially more dangerous country in a more strategically significant part of the world. If - or when - Iran has nuclear weapons, the mullahs could engage in much more provocative acts of brinksmanship. Recent history shows they probably could get away with it.

Iran has supplied insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan with intelligence and materiel support (as well as weapons sophisticated enough to defeat the heaviest U.S. tanks). It has given safe haven to al Qaeda operatives and done its best to undermine political stability in Baghdad and Kabul. U.S. officials have responded weakly to these warlike acts and refuse to make Tehran pay a price for spilling the blood of American troops. How much more would the Iranians think they could get away with if they had nuclear arms?

Appeasers who predict confidently that the scope of Iran’s misdeeds would be limited because they would be deterred by a potential U.S. response make the questionable assumption that Washington actually would respond. If Tehran isn’t currently deterred from attacking U.S. interests, Iran will be even more adventurous when it is more powerful. The weak U.S. position vis-a-vis Tehran presages even greater weakness once the mullahs have the bomb. It’s not Iran that will be deterred in the future, but the United States.

Hopefully, the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula will be resolved without further bloodshed. Either way, it is another example of the kind of cost-free belligerence nuclear rogue states can engage in, and it serves as further inspiration to American adversaries that aspire to join that select and dangerous club.