North Korea's wanton shelling of a South Korean island last week--one that has 1,000 civilian residents--is a reminder of how dangerous Pyongyang remains. Pundits worldwide have been busy trying to fathom North Korea's "reasons" for firing 200 artillery shells over a 90 minute period, sending up thick plumes of black smoke across the island and killing four South Koreans. The truth is, we don't know and it doesn't matter.
What matters is our response, and that of the South Koreans. Right now, that response may well embolden North Korea to further outrageous acts.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak has stated that if the North attacks again, then the South will respond. Of course, that is what is said every time the North makes an wanton act of aggression. And so far it hasn't stopped the North, which just this March sank a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors.
Washington has made the usual noises of condemning the attack, but it also decided to reverse its first instinct of avoiding antagonizing the North, instead sending a U.S. aircraft carrier group to Korean waters for naval exercises.
If South Korea and the United States won't stand up to the North, then this type of aggression will continue to happen into the future. One day, the North may well miscalculate, forcing the South into a major response that could lead to war.
Yet the thinking of those in Seoul and Washington too often is that we are boxed into a corner thanks to the thousands of artillery tubes pointed at the South, and that if we push the North too far, it could lead to a massive attack on Seoul, with the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians.
The leaders of North Korea, however, have to know that such an attack would lead, in short order, to the destruction of their state. That is why they have carefully planned each outrage they commit, so far correctly assuming that South Korea and America will restrain themselves from responding.
On top of that, our diplomatic attempts over the past seven years have also failed. We are, it seems, batting .000 so far.
So, how to take control of the situation and try to change North Korea's behavior? By refusing to be paralyzed.
The most powerful military in the world needs to start showing some strength, and see if that might force some behavioral adjustment in Pyongyang. For 60 years, the Pentagon has kept an enormous amount of military power in East Asia, and those planes, ships, subs, and American military personnel have undoubtedly helped keep the general peace in the region.
Now is the time to start flexing our muscles and the White House has taken the first positive step. On Wednesday, the USS George Washington, our nuclear-powered aircraft carrier homeported in Japan, left for waters off Korea, accompanied by two guided missile cruisers and two guided missile destroyers.
This can be a significant show of force, but it all depends on where the flotilla goes. It should be sent directly to the waters off the island, not just in the general vicinity of Korea.
The Obama Administration has twice pulled the George Washington back from entering the Yellow Sea since March, in deference to China. The ship should stay in the region for at least a week, conducting flight operations and joining up with whatever South Korean vessels and U.S. subs happen to be in the area.
Naval power is important, but it's not enough, since the North's threat comes primarily from the air (its missiles) and the ground (its million-man army). Thus, it's time to start deploying our F-22 fighters to South Korea.
We've never sent the world's most advanced fighter aircraft into any conflict zone, which is one reason why Congress found it so easy to kill the program last year at the behest of President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates. This is why we built the F-22: to show friends and enemies alike that we will enter any contested and defended airspace that we want, and that they won't be able to stop us.
North Korea has a small and inconsequential air force and old radar systems, but it has significant air defenses, including surface-to-air missiles and over 8,000 antiaircraft guns. What it lacks in sophistication, it makes up for in numbers.
A squadron of F-22s should be sent to Osan Air Base in South Korea and start conducting air patrols along the DMZ and over South Korean territory that is targeted by the North. Anything that fires on the F-22s should be destroyed, just as the North should have destroyed the artillery guns that attacked its island this week. Let the F-22s show they have a real role to play in protecting our allies and in operating with impunity in conflict areas, just as they were designed to do. And let the message get through to Pyongyang that if we want to, we can buzz Kim Jong-il's breakfast room.
Sending the USS George Washington is a good first move, but it needs to be followed up by a strong and continuing military presence in the area. Otherwise, we will send the wrong message to a regime that acts with increasing aggression and confidence.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.