SEOUL -- "Asymmetrical warfare," as it is called, has been around since the militarily superior Philistines and their champion Goliath were humbled by the wily shepherd boy David and his slingshot. Today's Palestinians deploy suicide bombers and rock-throwing children to counter the might of the Israeli army.
It's jujitsu -- turning an opponent's strength against him. Osama bin Laden's loyalists took advantage of America's open society to strike at it. The nearly 3,000 dead of Sept. 11 were only the down payment on bin Laden's success. The United States has become a much less pleasant country -- hostile, suspicious and bellicose at home and abroad.
Now the United States is turning asymmetrical warfare principles to its own use. Its military strength is, in a sense, a vulnerability because it is useful only for beating up other countries. But beating them up, as we are seeing in Iraq and Afghanistan, doesn't necessarily produce desired outcomes; both countries still need peacetime work that the United States is ill-equipped to perform.
Washington could easily beat up another "axis of evil" country, North Korea, but perhaps at the cost of seeing Seoul turned into a "sea of fire." So it is looking for alternatives.
It is discussing building bunker-busting nuclear bombs that could attack North Korean assets buried deep in mountains. But it is also devising other ways of accomplishing its objectives without direct military force.
An embarrassing example of the indirect approach occurred in December, when Washington got Spain to stop a missile-carrying North Korean ship -- legally, for it was flying a false flag -- only to back down when it turned out that the missiles were bound for Yemen, which had bought them fair and square.
This type of interdiction has been formalized in the Proliferation Security Initiative, a joint undertaking of the United States and 10 other countries (including Japan but not, so far, South Korea). The initiative attempts to disrupt North Korea's economic lifeline, which relies on selling weapons, counterfeit money and illegal drugs. Participating countries would assist in the interception of ships thought to be carrying contraband cargoes. Australia recently seized a large shipment of narcotics that it said came from North Korea.
If Pyongyang must rely on dirty money to live, few will object to having some of the sources dried up. North Korea, however, has said it would regard a blockade as an act of war.
A still more provocative plan made its way into the news last month. Operations Plan 5030 attempts to prey on North Korean military weaknesses. North Korea is short of fuel, for example, so reconnaissance planes may be flown repeatedly to the edge of North Korean airspace, forcing Pyongyang to scramble its jets and burn up fuel or taste the humiliation of powerlessness. Surprise military exercises may be mounted, making North Korean leaders scuttle to their bunkers and depleting emergency stores of food, fuel and water.
Plan 5030 quickly became something of an orphan, never quite confirmed or repudiated, dismissed with phrases such as "I don't know where that came from; it doesn't sound right." Perhaps it was just a trial balloon. Let's hope so, because it is a risky idea. The risk is not merely that one of these provocations might touch off war. That is soberingly possible, but probably avoidable.
The more likely effect of provocative military scheming is to eviscerate the U.S. diplomatic track. Six countries will meet in Beijing today to seek a peaceful way out of the crisis precipitated by North Korea's clandestine nuclear programs. Even supposing that the United States intends to make its best diplomatic efforts to find a solution, how receptive in this climate of hostility do we think the North Koreans will be to American assertions of good faith?
The Bush administration presumably thinks that its strategy of military pressure supports its diplomatic strategy of seeking a peaceful outcome. But not only in Pyongyang might it be thought that the two strategies are fundamentally at odds. If what Washington wants is North Korea's collapse or capitulation, it will not secure it at the negotiating table.
Hal Piper, a former foreign correspondent and Opinion
Commentary page editor of The Sun, is editor of JoonAng, an English-language newspaper in Seoul.