This article in the Independent articulates an argument that I summarise thus: North Korea is developing nukes, it is firing rockets and other stuff into the sky near or above its neighbours, but the country is a basket case; it is led by a nutcase and all this stuff is in fact it is a sign of weakness, not strength. In other words, nothing much to worry about, please move along, ManU are playing Barcelona in the Champions League, etc.
I actually accept that there is probably a great deal of truth in this “nothing to get overly worried about” line. There’d better be. There is not much, short of war, with all the terrible costs it would bring, that neighbouring countries such as South Korea, China or Japan can do to pressure North Korea that they have not done already. (Japan, by the way, has been busily expanding its naval forces). When in the past I have briefly mentioned North Korea, some commentators on Samizdata will point out that the West (ie, the US), should not, or has no need or business, to defend South Korea or indeed to act as if North Korea is a “problem” to be fixed. Let the locals sort it out, etc. Well up to a point, but there will be wider effects to think about if nuclear weapons are ever used, or threatened to be used, against what is, after all, a broadly free and friendly country like South Korea.
I think part of the problem is that as long as the US has kept significant armed forces in the region, it can create a sort of moral hazard problem, in that the countries thus protected fall out of the habit of learning to defend themselves, or understand its costs. I am not an expert on South Korean public opinion, but I cannot help but wonder what the impact of a long-running US presence will have on creating a possible false sense of security. One of the things that is clearly coming out of the current economic crisis, and the wrecked state of US public finances, is that there will now be enormous pressure on any US administration, even one led by more hawkish people than Mr Obama, to cut, or just limit, defence spending. South Korea has not escaped the impact of the credit crunch, and if it was not willing to shell out more money on defence five years ago, it is hard to see it doing that now, unless it is completely terrified of an attack. I am sure that the top brass in North Korea understand all this only too well.
Let us hope it is a sign of a weak, not strong regime. But remember also that weak, or desperate countries can do desperate things, such as the Argentine Junta’s decision to invade the Falkland Islands in 1982. As we know, Argentina lost that conflict, and it helped destroy the regime. But Argentina did not have, or threaten to use, nukes.