Recent developments on the Korean peninsula provide a stark reminder that -- even in the post-Cold War era -- peaceful nations remain vulnerable to the threat of conventional military attack. An international investigation has confirmed that North Korea is responsible for an unprovoked torpedo strike that sank a South Korean warship in March, killing 46 sailors. Amid rising tensions in the wake of the finding, which North Korea disputes, a North Korean official informed a United Nations conference last week that "war may break out any moment," shattering the uneasy peace maintained between North and South since the 1953 armistice ended the Korean War. This is far from the first time the Communist dictatorship in North Korea has threatened the fragile stability in the region, but it is certainly the most dramatic in a series of episodes demonstrating the danger posed by Kim Jong-il's regime.
Despite a succession of sanctions and diplomatic measures aimed at halting North Korea's nuclear weapons program, leaders in Pyongyang continue to flout international will by openly testing long-range missiles and nuclear devices. The Pacific nation's lack of compliance with nuclear inspection agreements makes it difficult to predict how soon North Korea may have the capability to successfully target American interests and territories with nuclear weapons, but the attack on our South Korean ally makes it clear that North Korea is willing and able to strike with conventional weapons.
While many on the left argue that a large-scale military force is obsolete in the post 9/11 world of Times Square car bombs and lone would-be airplane bombers, now is not the time to be complacent regarding our conventional military resources. American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Auslin warns that developments in the Pacific region alone "increase the pressure on a United States Navy that is facing shrinking budgets and increasing responsibilities." According to a recent article in The Weekly Standard, "the current number of ships in the fleet, 286, is substantially below the minimum set by several previous studies of what the Navy requires to carry out all the tasks it is charged with around the world." The report states that our shrinking defense budget is increasingly dwarfed by entitlement spending, which currently consumes three times as much of the budget as defense spending and is on track to cost five times as much if Obama is re-elected for a second term.
In addition to direct threats from its military forces, North Korea also jeopardizes security by supporting terror organizations. In 2009, the regime was caught transporting weapons to Iran of the type that nation routinely supplies to Hezbollah and Hamas. Reports from our allies reveal other incidents indicating North Korea has directly provided ongoing training and weapons to Hezbollah and the Tamil Tigers terror group in Sri Lanka. While North Korea was removed from the terrorism support list in 2007 in exchange for nuclear concessions that never materialized, its recent documented support of terror groups suggests it may be time to reconsider that designation. The obvious danger is that North Korea will combine its nuclear activity with its terror sympathies and supply our terrorist enemies with their ultimate weapon -- a nuclear device.
With its nuclear ambitions, escalating provocations and track record of support for terrorist organizations, North Korea is a threat that is impossible to ignore and may prove impossible to contain through diplomatic means alone. In a time of such fiscal crisis, it is certainly important to consider spending cuts to any and all parts of the budget. However, any reduction in defense spending must be undertaken very strategically in order to maintain our ability to respond to more traditional military threats. Because while most of the world is adjusting to a post-9/11 reality, it's still 1953 in Pyongyang.