Front half of the South Korean warship Cheonan, lifted from the water near Baengnyeong Island

We should admit that we’re afraid of North Korea. Well, we shouldn’t admit that to the North Koreans, but we should admit it to ourselves. You can’t overcome your fears if you don’t deal with them honestly. You just stew in them until you’re not even conscious how much they affect your outlook.

Sure, that’s well worn wisdom, by why not return to wisdom well worn when you fear something consequential, like a nuclear attack on your ally? We worry that if we mishandle affairs on the Korean peninsula, we could see nuclear warfare as the outcome. We’ve signalled to the North Koreans that we’ll do – or not do – anything to avoid that.

Let’s not mistake what’s going on here. The North Koreans sink a South Korean warship, forty-three lives lost at sea, and the United Nations mounts a thorough investigation. Weeks later the investigators submit a predictably scrupulous report that says the North Koreans sank the ship, but let’s not do anything about it. Next the North Koreans bombard a South Korean island, kill both soldiers and civilians, and burn the village there. We don’t need an investigation to determine who launched this attack.

What’s the first reaction of many countries, including the United States, to this latest act of war? It’s not the reaction you’d expect from people who bravely face their fears. Brave people would speak diplomatically but honestly about what’s going on. Brave countries with spine would emulate Margaret Thatcher and declare, “Enough,” not scurry into executive session to figure out what to say.

By contrast, the United States leads the way in spineless, dishonest diplomacy. North Korea attacks our closest military ally in the Pacific, and what’s our reaction? It’s not, “How do we keep this sort of thing from happening again – now that it’s happened twice already.” Instead we hide our dismay with measured phrases: “Stay calm. Don’t overreact. We don’t want things to get out of hand here. We’ll do whatever is necessary to prevent war – what about some joint military exercises?”

I agree that preventing war is a good goal, but the war has already started. The question we have to answer now is how to stop the war and protect our ally. We all agree that we don’t want to fight China on the Korean peninsula again. We agree that we don’t want North Korea to launch a nuclear weapon at Seoul. We sense that the U. S. doesn’t have the will or the resources to fight another major war at the moment. Even if we did, we wouldn’t want the small war that exists now to develop into a bigger one.

North Korea bombards Yeonpyeong

But shouldn’t this week’s bombardment of Yeonpyeong make us feel a little ashamed, six months after North Korea sank the Cheonan in May? Are we going to protect South Korea or not? If not, what are we doing there? If we do want to protect South Korea, what’s the best way to accomplish that? We should ask those questions, because what we’re doing now isn’t working.

We face two countries now whose nuclear ambitions cause us anxiety: Iran and North Korea. We know from long experience that sanctions, diplomacy, jawboning, military threats and saber-rattling don’t work. They don’t work to ease our anxiety, anyway. It’s a lot harder to say what’s happening inside North Korea and Iran. A little more knowledge about our enemies would help.

I don’t suggest that because methods short of war don’t work, we should go to war. We have already turned to military methods as a first resort too often, and they frequently don’t work, either. I will say we should rethink our relationship with countries like North Korea. We should increase our skill in coordinating political, diplomatic, and military activities to achieve our aims.  If we don’t, we should expect to deliberate, scold and fuss anxiously, since that’s apparently the best we can do.