On Tuesday, North Korea rained artillery down on a small South Korean island, killing two soldiers and injuring several civilians living there. What was South Korea's push-back this time? It fired back with small rockets, perhaps killing several North Koreans.
This tit-for-tat military incident again revealed the unfulfilled desire of North Korea's leaders to conquer the South. Short of another invasion, however, the regime of Kim Jong il can afford to wage only small battles to make a point of some sort even as he also builds up a treasure of nuclear weapons – weapons that he can't really use without also suffering a massive counter strike by the US.
Ending this long stalemate will require that Kim, or his newly designated heir, Kim Jong Un, accept that the only path to a reunited Korea is by peaceful means and consensus.
Having a moribund economy, however, North Korea is in no position to cut a good deal for reunification. Its only hope? To somehow get the US to pull out its forces from South Korea and then the North can march in – or at least intimidate Seoul into submission.
In a nutshell, that's North Korea's strategy. When I visited there in 1992, it was making overtures to the world to open ever so slightly. But then Kim discovered that doing so might enlighten his people about their economic plight compared to South Korea, causing an uprising. The hermit kingdom is still largely closed.
Meanwhile, China, North Korea's closest ally, prefers the status quo and keeps its neighbor supplied with fuel. Beijing's leaders even claim that the 1950-53 Korean War was a victory. For what isn't clearly stated. For the US, the war was a clear victory – to contain communism in Asia. And that cold-war strategy lives on with the two Koreas.
Waiting and containing are the fall-back options, as they have been for 60 years.