Next North Korea Risk Could Be U.S. Campaign Gaffes: The Ticker

a | A

By William Pesek

Even for gaffe-prone Rick Perry, it was a cringe-worthy blunder.

The Republican hopeful put out a press release last week to comment on the death of Kim Jong Il. It described North Korea's leader as Kim Jong the Second, mistaking one of his names as a Roman numeral denoting him as the second generation of the Kim dynasty. It made headlines in Asia, where the current crop of GOP candidates aren't known for foreign-policy expertise.

Now that Kim Jong the Third, errr, Kim Jong Un, is taking over, there's reason to worry about unhelpful comments on the U.S. election trail.

Since the death of Osama bin Laden, Republicans have been looking for an Obama foreign-policy soft spot on which to focus. Few have emerged, with Obama being largely on the right side of the Arab Spring and fulfilling a pledge to get American troops out of Iraq. With the Iowa caucuses days away, Republican-nominee hopefuls may try to score points on Korea.

The risk is that they will bring the anti-Pyongyang talk to a rhetorical Def-Con 4. Any George W. Bush-like chatter of regime change might spook Kim Jong Un into proving his mettle. The untested 20-something may feel cornered and react by lobbing missiles South Korea's way or greenlighting nuclear tests.

The imponderables are stacking up and working their way through markets. Consumer confidence in South Korea fell to a three-month low in December out of concern that the political outlook will worsen in the wake of Kim Jong Il’s death. It slid to 99 from 103 in November. A reading below 100 indicates pessimists outnumber optimists.

This argument isn't in favor of appeasement. No tears should be shed for Kim's tyrannical reign, which favored investing in nuclear weapons while 2 million people starved. Yet this is no time to telegraph threats a world away. The Rick Perrys, Newt Gingriches and Mitt Romneys may just be political posturing. The young and possibly paranoid leader of nuclear North Korea may not get the distinction.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

-0- Dec/27/2011 15:24 GMT