Jason Lee / Courtesy Reuters Kim Jong-un waves to the people during a parade to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the signing of a truce in the 1950-1953 Korean War, at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, July 27, 2013.

Why North Korea Gets Away With It

Pyongyang's Skillful Deterrence

U.S.–North Korea relations recently enjoyed 16 optimistic days: between February 29, when Pyongyang signed the “Leap Day” arms control agreement with the United States, and March 16, when it announced plans to conduct the very kind of rocket launch that it had just forsworn. Reacting to the announcement of the satellite launch, which is intended to commemorate the centenary of founding father Kim Il Sung’s birth, U.S. President Barack Obama warned North Korea about the consequences of provocation and called on China to stop “turning a blind eye” to the North Korean nuclear program. The denunciations Obama and others have been making sound like a familiar refrain. “Rules must be binding, violations must be punished, words must mean something,” Obama said in his now-famous Prague speech, in which he condemned North Korea’s April 2009 rocket launch. But the rules aren’t binding, North Korea’s violations aren’t meaningfully punished, words are mostly just words, and China does little.

North Korea’s saber rattling today represents only the most recent episode in a long history of unpunished provocation. In 1968, North Korean forces seized a U.S. Navy ship and its crew, and in 1976, they killed with an axe two U.S. servicemen who were trying to trim an overhanging tree in the demilitarized zone. (The Americans responded to the latter incident by dispatching the most heavily armed landscaping operation in world history, with tree-trimmers in the DMZ accompanied by jets flying overhead.) Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the regime

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