Give the schoolyard bully a bloody nose

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 11 May, 2010, 12:00am

North Korea is like a bully in the schoolyard, a notion understood in many places around the world, but no one has yet figured out a way to make him behave for fear of causing a war to erupt.

Ever since the end of the Korean war in 1953, North Koreans under dictator Kim Il-sung and then Kim Jong-il, his son and successor, have repeatedly provoked South Korea, the United States and Japan with assassinations, more armed violence, infiltration and kidnappings. The North Koreans have blandly denied the provocations or shrugged them off.

Diplomatic protests, economic sanctions and pleas to the United Nations have all come to naught. Even China and Russia, Pyongyang's allies, have been ineffective in restraining the Kims. The Chinese were evidently unsuccessful in persuading Kim Jong-il, who visited Beijing last week, not to be reckless.

The latest aggravation has been the sinking of a small South Korean warship, the corvette Cheonan, presumably by a torpedo fired by a North Korean submarine in waters west of the Korean peninsula. In that incident on March 26, about half of the crew, 46 sailors, died.

The Cheonan affair appears to be falling into a pattern set over half a century ago when North Korean agents hijacked a South Korean airliner flying from Pusan to Seoul and forced it to fly on to Pyongyang.

North Korean provocations intensified in the 1960s and continued into the 1990s. In 1968, commandos tried to assassinate president Park Chung-hee. About 36 hours later, North Korea captured the US intelligence ship Pueblo in international waters. Later that year, 131 commandos infiltrated South Korea for sabotage. The following year, North Korean MiG fighters shot down a US EC-121 electronic intelligence plane over international waters, killing 31 Americans.

In 1974, a North Korean agent tried again to assassinate president Park during a public speech, but instead murdered his wife, Yuk Young-soo. Along the demilitarised zone, two American officers were killed by North Koreans wielding axes. The first of at least four North Korean tunnels was found under the demilitarised boundary zone.

A North Korean bomb intended to kill president Chun Doo-whan in Rangoon, today's Yangon, in 1983 missed him but killed 17 senior South Korean officials. Another North Korean bomb downed a South Korean airliner flying from Baghdad to Seoul in 1987, killing 115 passengers and crew.

North Korea fired a missile over Japan in 1999, the first of several firings that some might consider acts of war.

Interspersed in this have been innumerable kidnappings of South Korean and Japanese citizens, unending attempts to infiltrate commandos into the South, and repeated discoveries of North Korean spy rings in the South and in Japan.

Since diplomacy and mild threats have not worked, maybe it's time somebody punched the bully on the nose, just hard enough to make it bloody but not so hard as to trigger a war.

Richard Halloran is a former New York Times foreign correspondent in Asia and military correspondent in Washington