Pyongyang Emboldened by a 'Shock and Nah' Policy


In the aftermath of President Donald Trump's meeting with his South Korean counterpart, Moon Jae-in, the White House announced military options against North Korea are being explored. A "Shock and Awe" policy may be replacing an immensely unsuccessful "Shock and Nah" one.

"Shock and Awe" is a 19th century military strategy using overwhelming force at a conflict's outset to achieve rapid dominance to break an enemy's will to fight. It was popularized in 2003 by President George Bush who used it during the Iraq invasion. For decades prior, we have followed a far less successful strategy against North Korea, best described as "Shock and Nah."

This policy is one that declares initial "shock" over an aggressive act by Pyongyang followed by inaction, nurturing a mindset of "Nah, we are not going to respond in kind."

This mindset remained despite a long history of North Korean aggression perpetrated against South Korea, Japan, and the U.S. It nurtured a continuing pattern of bad behavior by Pyongyang that has only increased in scope and frequency.

In April 2007, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) published a report for Congress titled "North Korea Provocative Actions, 1950-2007." These included acts like "armed invasion; border violations; infiltration of armed saboteurs and spies; hijacking; kidnaping; terrorism (including assassination and bombing); threat/intimidation against political leaders, media personnel, and institutions; incitement aimed at the overthrow of the South Korean government; actions undertaken to impede progress in major negotiations; and tests of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons."

The report did not include North Korean involvement in drug trafficking or "political and other extrajudicial killings" of the sort making headlines earlier this year when Pyongyang's leader, Kim Jong-un, had his half-brother assassinated in a Malaysian airport.

However, the mere range of acts included in this laundry list of provocations demonstrates historically the extent to which Pyongyang goes to cause international tension.

Other than occasional sanctions or providing economic assistance to deter future bad behavior or engaging in diplomatic discussions with Pyongyang, its leadership recognizes that its enemies, while barking, will never bite. As some attest, further negotiations with Pyongyang are senseless and useless. Its aggressiveness only feeds off our inaction, evidenced as follows.

The Korean War ended (although a peace treaty has yet to be signed) in 1953. The first post-war provocation occurred in 1958. North Korean agents hijacked a South Korean passenger plane on a domestic flight, taking it to Pyongyang.

A seven-year gap followed as the next act occurred in 1965. Two North Korean fighter jets attacked and damaged a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft over the Sea of Japan.

But provocations increased in 1968:

  1. A January assassination attempt against the South Korean president by a 31-man North Korean commando team, disguised as South Korean soldiers who infiltrated Seoul;
  2. A January attack by North Korean boats on the U.S. intelligence ship PUEBLO, capturing it and imprisoning her crew for a year (the ship still remains in North Korea); and
  3. Infiltration into South Korea of 130 seaborne North Korean commandos (110 were killed, seven captured and 13 fled).

Perhaps emboldened by behaving badly without consequence, North Korea embarked upon multiple provocations annually between 1968-2007. The most outrageous included: shooting down a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, killing its 31-man crew; ambushing and killing four U.S. soldiers along the DMZ; again hijacking a South Korean passenger plane; assassinating South Korea's First Lady; digging tunnels under the DMZ for future infiltrations; attacking and killing two U.S. army officers with axes; kidnapping a popular South Korean actress and director in Hong Kong, forcing their participation in propaganda films glorifying the North Korean leadership; a terrorist bombing in Burma killing 17 senior South Korean officials; submarines repeatedly dropping off infiltrators; etc.

The report goes on to list many more provocations. Tokyo discovered some long-missing persons were abducted and forced to instruct infiltrator trainees in Japanese customs and culture. A shameless North Korea refuses, to this day, to release numerous foreign abductees as well as passengers aboard the two hijacked aircraft. Provocations include numerous nuclear and missile tests as well.

The most brazen provocation came after the 2007 CRS report's publishing, however. In 2010, a North Korean submarine sank the South Korean destroyer CHEONAN-claiming 43 lives.

North Korea recently added to its body count of victims with the death of American student Otto Warmbier, sentenced to fifteen years hard labor for allegedly removing a political sign. Falling into a coma during captivity, he was released, only to die at home last month.

Warmbier's death, as well as many other provocations by Pyongyang, constitute acts of war. As such, much more forceful responses were demanded.

The time has now come to let Pyongyang know we will tolerate no further provocations. One military response Trump may want to consider involves, ironically, sinking an American ship! The target: USS PUEBLO, still proudly displayed by Pyongyang as a prize of aggression.

As mentioned, in 1968 PUEBLO was attacked and seized by North Korea. For three decades it sat in Wonsan Harbor on the east coast. However, in 2000, President Bill Clinton, during talks with Pyongyang to stop work on a nuclear reactor, secretly allowed the Koreans to move the ship, freshly painted, up the Taedong River-making a 1000 mile journey through international waters unchallenged by our Navy-for a more public display later in Pyongyang.

PUEBLO remains an active duty Navy ship. She is ours to do with as we please. She long ago would have been deactivated and scrapped. Therefore, we should inform Pyongyang, it can either return the vessel to us or we will destroy her in place-thus denying North Korea an illicit war trophy, displayed simply to taunt us, demonstrating our resolve not to tolerate future provocations.

Those opposed to such action might reflect upon Khalid Sheik Muhammed's - a 9/11 plotter now imprisoned at Guantanamo - acknowledgement. He revealed President Bush's 9/11 "Shock and Awe" response prevented a second 9/11.

Dealing with North Korea demands replacing the "Nah" of a failed "Shock and Nah" policy with the "Awe" Pyongyang so richly deserves.

A version of this piece also appeared on

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.

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