The Obama administration is totally inept with regard to foreign policy, but in no case is that worst than with regard to North Korea. Unfortunately this incompetence has the potential to turn an annoyance into a major disaster. There is little doubt that North Korea sunk a South Korean ship. North Korea has been doing stuff like this for decades. North Korea must be restrained, but this is not worth setting off a war. There were two major incidents during 1968 and 1969. The first was the capture of the USS Pueblo. Lyndon Johnson was President. He huffed and he puffed, but ultimately did nothing. Ultimately, it was Johnson who backed down. The second incident, which is described below, was probably a direct result of the poor handling of the Pueblo incident by Johnson. The real tragedy of the USS Pueblo is that Commander Bucher did not realize the importance of the equipment and the personnel on that ship. It was a Naval Security Guard vessel conducting operations so classified that the ship commander was not briefed. If he knew what was at stake, he probably would not have allowed the ship to be boarded, regardless of casualties.
There was a similar incident in 1967 with another ship, the USS Liberty when it was attacked by Israel.
In that case the Commander, Captain McGonagle fought back, losing 34 crewmembers but saving the ship. He was awarded the Medal of Honor.
The second was the shoot down of an EC121 in 1969. I am very familiar with this case, because two of the crew members went to language school in Monterey at the same time I was there. What was especially sad about that case was that it didn’t have to happen. A USAFSS listening post had picked up traffic indicating that the North Koreans were practicing an attack on the Navy plane. (It flew the same route on a regular basis). The USAFSS tried to warn the Navy and requested a direct communication channel with the plane. That was denied. The USAFSS linguists at OSAN picked up the attack and desperately tried to warn the EC121 crew. But, because they had to go through the Navy communications loop, the warning was received by the EC121 only 1 minute before it was shot down. The entire 31 man crew was killed. (I learned this directly from the linguists involved. My roommate at that time was a Korean linguist. Two of the people killed were in his Korean language class.)
President Nixon took a very low key public approach to what amounted to an act of war. He ordered an immediate halt of all aerial reconnaissance missions, but he rescinded the order three days later. From then on these missions flew with fighter escorts.
Nixon made some serious mistakes with regard to the EC121 incident, but ultimately he got it right. He did not over react, but he also did not ignore it. He resumed the flights, but made sure it wouldn’t happen again. By this tactic he was letting North Korea know that this would not be tolerated, but he was careful to avoid turning a very unfortunate event into a shooting war. He handled this in a way that did not cause the North Koreans to lose face. He even allowed a cover story leaked claiming that this was the result of a mistake by A North Korean ground controller. Remember that Nixon was the first U.S. President to open up communications with China. Nixon understood face.
The problem with the Obama administration is that they are making a lot of threats that no one takes seriously. Hopefully this will end quietly with the normal embarrassment associated with any Obama administration attempt at an effective foreign policy. Some of our actions, such as turning up loud speakers on the DMZ, just appear to be silly nonsense.
But the real problem is that has the potential to cause North Korea to lose face. That could result in North Korean feeling it has to go to war to retain its honor. Notice how China is condemning the sinking of the South Korean ship, but is not specifically accusing North Korea of doing the sinking. China does not want this unfortunately situation to result in a war which would result in an unimaginable loss of life. I suspect that this will cool down shortly, primarily because the Obama administration is almost certain to back down. There is virtually no chance that China will support any significant retaliation against North Korea. While North Korea is definitely unpleasant, they really do not represent a serious threat to us, unless we cause them to lose face and blunder into a very dangerous military confrontation. But, if the Obama administration continues to escalate the tension, in a meaningless gesture, the results could be catastrophic. North Korea has an enormous military and many people believe their leader, Kim Jung II is terminally ill. We have enough challenges without adding an unnecessary war in the mix. Let’s hope calmer heads prevail.
Ultimately, it is about face.