"The North Koreans are fully capable of stepping over the line and creating a crisis," says Tom Schieffer, who juggled Pyongyang's provocations as U.S. ambassador to Japan from 2005 to 2009. "That is where the danger of miscalculation can occur and things can get pretty serious pretty quickly."
The challenge is halting North Korea's belligerent actions without triggering war, and without South Korea or the U.S. paying a price — either in dollars or diplomacy — for Pyongyang's good behavior. "North Korea has followed the Mafia model: 'If you don't give me some money, I'll throw a brick through your window,'" Schieffer says. "I don't think they're going to get any money, but the key question is: Do the North Koreans know that?"
"It's unclear to us exactly what North Korea feels it is trying to achieve through this ongoing chest-thumping," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "There will be no reward for North Korea for these provocations."
U.S. experts are split over how to handle the rising tensions. Michael O'Hanlon, a defense expert at the Brookings Institution, believes a "firm but finite" response — such as seeking millions of dollars in reparations for the Cheonan deaths — is the best route.
But retired Army General B.B. Bell, who commanded U.S. forces in South Korea from 2006 to 2008, believes tougher action by the South Koreans is required. "Until North Korea is punished for its frequent and continuing military strikes," he says, "they'll continue to do them without concern for what the consequences might be." Following the Cheonan sinking, Bell says Seoul should have attacked Pyongyang's sub bases and key command sites.
While serious, the skirmishes between North and South Korea can also be seen as shadowboxing by their respective protectors, China and the U.S.[TIME]