Infinitely more disturbing than either of these possibilities is the prospect of a second Korean War that would make the devastating civil war in Syria
pale in comparison. In the current volatile atmosphere on the peninsula, it is easy to imagine a war started by accident or triggered by a small
provocation that rapidly escalates, drawing in the United States and even China, Pyongyang's closest friend. The destruction and loss of life would be
catastrophic. In fact, the North initiated two limited attacks against South Korea in 2010, sinking a naval corvette and firing artillery shells that
struck Seoul's territory, both resulting in the tragic loss of life. Luckily, the United States and South Korea decided not to respond with their own
military strikes against the North.
Restraint may no longer be possible. During a recent think-tank meeting in Washington D.C, a retired American general asserted that, unlike in 2010, we
should respond with force if the North launches another military provocation. His logic was that the North would not retaliate since a full-scale war with
the much more powerful United States and its South Korean ally would result in its destruction. That seems to makes sense, but in fact his argument was
dangerously flawed. For North Korea -- a small nationalistic country that sees itself as beset by stronger external enemies -- not responding with force
could easily be seen as tantamount to committing national suicide.
Starting with the premise that North Korea is a serious problem for the United States and the international community, the first step in figuring out what
to do about it should be to figure out what makes North Korea tick. This is a challenging task under the best of circumstances, so it may seem like an even
taller order for North Korea, the world's only hereditary communist monarchy. The task is even harder because of widespread misconceptions about the North.
Actually, a myth-based policy helps explain in part why we are in this mess to begin with. During its first term, the Obama administration pursued an
approach called "strategic patience," based on the flawed assumption that isolating a weak North would convince it to stop behaving badly. Although experts
with decades of experience dealing with Pyongyang warned that this policy would not work, the administration went ahead anyway. Sure enough, strategic
patience had the opposite effect; Pyongyang's behavior is worse than ever before and its WMD programs continue to make progress.
Given this troubling state of affairs, there are five myths about North Korea that must be addressed.
North Korea's leaders are crazy: That has been the rap since Kim Jong Il, the current leader's deceased father, took power in 1994. While foreigners found Kim to be confident,
knowledgeable, and of course ruthless, the perception that Pyongyang's leaders are crazy has persisted. The jury may still be out on his son, leaving aside
Dennis Rodman's pronouncement, after partying with Kim Jun Un, that he is an all right guy. Still, he made a number of adept moves in 2012, his first year
in power, confidently putting his own people in key jobs, for example. If Kim follows the example set by his father and grandfather, North Korea's
international behavior will be based on pragmatic interests, not irrational moves. After decades of maneuvering between the Soviet Union and China,
Pyongyang first cozied up to its American enemy after the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991, when China improved relations with archrival South Korea.
More recently the North tacked closer to China when the Obama administration's tried to punish it for conducting WMD tests. Even Pyongyang's recent
bellicose threats to launch military strikes against the United States, while disturbing, are not crazy. They are the predictable response to new sanctions
and U.S.-South Korean military exercises of a country that believes the best defense for dealing with powerful enemies is a good offense.