If recent events in Korea prove anything, its that the world is a dangerous place. And it appears also to be a place where dangerous aggressors are allowed to shell innocent civilians with impunity.
South Korea had little more than a tepid response to the shelling of YeonpYeong Island, and South Korean Defense Minister Kim Tae-young was forced to resign his post amid public dissatisfaction and intense criticism as a result. The U.S. was similarly quiescent. Fox News reported that the President Obama “called South Korean President Lee Myung-bak … saying the U.S. would work with the international community to strongly condemn the attack.” Surely the North Koreans are frightened now.
For right or wrong, the United States is allied with South Korea. We have tens of thousands of troops there, the sons and daughters of families from around the United States. Repeated failure to respond in any concrete way to repeated and deadly provocations like the shelling of YeonpYeong Island and the sinking of the Cheonan will simply embolden North Korea’s uniquely despicable totalitarian regime. That increases the risk that our soldiers, not to mention innocent South Korean civilians, will come under attack in the future.
The Obama administration, however, seems to have no plans to take action against North Korea. True, an aircraft carrier strike group has been dispatched to the region, well equipped to deliver a thoroughly unmatched war-making capability to any adversary. It will be an impressive display of power, but a worthless one.
The North Koreans are not fools. They almost certainly will not attack a carrier battle group. Instead, they will publicly issue protests and threats while they wait for the American attention deficit disorder to kick in when the carrier returns to port. When the coast is clear, they’ll fire a few more rounds into South Korea, or they’ll attack another unsuspecting South Korean ship, or they’ll think of some other creative way to tweak the nose of the world’s remaining, if timid, superpower.
What would previous American presidents have done in a similar situation? Thomas Jefferson’s approach to the threat posed by the Barbary Pirates is one example of a president advocating the use of military force to end the depredations of a tyrannical regime. The pirates had been preying on American shipping, and demanded tribute, or substantial bribes, to leave American ships and men alone.
Moreover, as with North Korea today, the behavior of the Barbary states was truly appalling. Those unfortunate enough to be captured were enslaved at best, after which they might live out a perilous and miserable existence until they were worked to death, perhaps at the oars of pirate galleys.
To stop this, the Barbary states demanded tremendous sums of money. “The level of tribute demanded began to reach 10 percent of the American national budget, with no guarantee that greed would not increase that percentage, while from the dungeons of Algiers and Tripoli came appalling reports of the mistreatment of captured men and women,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in a summary of the situation for the City Journal in 2007.
Ultimately, believing the Americans weak, the pasha of Tripoli declared war on the U.S., thinking, as Hitchens noted, that this tactic might loosen the American purse strings. The American Navy put this notion to rest, and the Marines ever after have celebrated their action on “the shores of Tripoli.”
Jefferson was not the only American president to respond to a threat from abroad with pugnacious action. A much more recent President took a similar approach during a pair of crises in the 1980s. In a response to terrorist attacks sponsored by the Libyan government, under President Reagan the U.S. military bombed targets in Libya in order to diminish the Libyan government’s ability to train terrorists and to send a message that such activity wouldn’t be tolerated.
Three years earlier, Reagan had faced the prospect of a new Soviet foothold in the Americas, located on the island of Grenada. Ruled by a Marxist government that took power in 1979, it was later revealed that Grenada had forged a close relationship with the Soviet Union and Cuba. In a summary brief written for the Heritage Foundation, Timothy Ashby, president of Caribbean Financial Consultants, described the Soviet military ties to Grenada:
Grenada signed a number of treaties and secret agreements with the USSR and Soviet proxies designed to provide the PRG with a vast quantity of armaments, including an AN-26 aircraft that “can seat 39 paratroopers,” 60 armored personnel carriers and patrol vehicles, four coastal patrol boats, nearly 10,000 assault and other rifles, more than 450 machine guns, 11.5 million rounds of 7.62mm ammunition, 294 rocket launchers with 16,000 rockets, 84 82mm mortars with 4,800 mortar shells, 12 75mm cannons with 600 shells, 60 crew-served anti-aircraft guns with 600,000 rounds of ammunition, 30 76mm field guns with 11,000 rounds of ammunition, 30 57mm anti-tank guns with 10,000 rounds of ammunition, and 20,000 sets of uniforms.
That amount of firepower could not have been needed to defend the tiny island nation, which faced no conceivable threat. Another factor was the building of the Point Salinas airport with its unusually long runway and other installations that went well beyond the needs of commercial aviation. Liam ‘Owusu’ James, a member of the central committee with close ties to many leaders in Grenada at the time and who Ashby says “received military training in the Soviet Union,” wrote in his notebook in 1980 that the “airport will be used for Cuban and Soviet military.”
Faced with this threat, the United States did not wait for developments and did not issue vague condemnations, but removed the threat by military force.
Of course, Reagan, a Republican anathema to many, if not most, Democrats, was not the only president to use military force to confront Soviet ambitions in the Caribbean. Democrat John F. Kennedy did the same turning the Soviets away from Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis.
An opportunity now exists to end the threat posed by the North Korean totalitarian regime that has enslaved and impoverished millions, killed numberless others, and continues to engage in deadly warlike activities.
Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, was among the scientists allowed to inspect a uranium enrichment facility in North Korea not long before the attack on YeonpYeong. “My jaw just dropped,” said Hecker of what he saw. “I was stunned to see what looked like hundreds and hundreds of centrifuges lined up two each … it was just stunning in a clean facility, modern facility. Looking down I said, ‘Oh my God, they did what they said they were going to do.’”
While Hecker was at pains to point out that the facility would not suddenly lead to a North Korean hyrdogen bomb, the fact that this villainous state can build such a installation underscores its native technical capabilities, and its ability to access substantial funding for complex projects. In short, it demonstrates that an unpredictable regime most likely also has the wherewithal to conduct extensive military actions should it wish to do so.
Like the Barbary Pirates of long ago, as long as North Korea’s leaders think they can bully the United States with impunity, the probability of future attacks on South Korea, or worse, remains high. It’s time for the United States to send a message that military aggression doesn’t pay.
Dennis Behreandt is the Founder and Editor In Chief of the American Daily Herald, the former managing and senior editor at The New American, and the author of hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from natural theology to history and from science and technology to philosophy. His research interests include the period of late antiquity in European history as well as Medieval and Renaissance history. Visit his blog and article archive at DennisBehreandt.com.