RGE’s Wednesday Note – Assessing the Next North Korean Flare-Up
In attempting to assess the risk of war or something near it on the Korean peninsula, one might be tempted to consult the history of skirmishes between the North and South since a truce ended all-out combat in 1953. The result would be an interesting list of flare-ups and atrocities almost exclusively instigated by the North: hundreds of commando infiltrations; the kidnapping of Japanese civilians; the ax murder of two U.S. soldiers (1976); a terrorist bombing in Burma that killed 18 Seoul officials, including much of the cabinet (1983); the bombing of a Korean Air Lines passenger jet, killing 135 passengers (1987); the firing of ballistic missiles over Japan (1998); two nuclear weapon detonations in this decade; and, this year alone, the sinking of a South Korean warship in March and the deadly shelling of a South Korean island in November.
In short, citing a pattern or claiming insight into what Pyongyang will do next is self-delusion. Judging from recent revelations by WikiLeaks, this frustration and confusion goes right up to the highest levels in China and the U.S., leaving their respective intelligence agencies to make educated guesses. So the nutty House of Kim retains the initiative.
The current heightened tensions between North and South Korea are unlikely to erupt into an all-out military confrontation, given the inherent human and economic costs as well as the shared interest of China and South Korea in avoiding a collapse of the North’s dictatorial regime. However, a low but still real possibility exists that some combination of miscalculation, political maneuvering in the North’s power structure and outright emotion could tip the peninsula into a war.
The shelling of Yeonpyeong Island pushed President Lee Myung-bak’s government past a political tipping point. The South Korean government already had effectively ended the “sunshine policy”—a carrot-and-stick approach to the North that had prevailed since 2000, dominated by carrots. Following the shelling, Lee’s government issued harsh warnings that the next incident would be met with action rather than words or legal maneuvers. On December 13, the South’s Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said his military would act with force if another attack occurred.
If North Korea chooses to strike again, the South (and possibly the U.S., too) is bound to react militarily. But North Korea’s erratic behavior raises the ante on any such move, no matter how “just” or “proportionate” it might appear. So, the real question is how the North would respond to retaliation. Some fear Pyongyang would view any attack on its territory or military forces as an “escalation” requiring another round of attacks. Others speculate—and, again, it is speculation—that with the North’s regime in transition, the current leadership will feel compelled to respond to any attack with disproportionate force in order to emphasize its role as defender of the nation.
In such a scenario, Seoul would lay in ruins within hours. The U.S., with 27,000 troops in South Korea, would move to reinforce them and almost surely would launch massive naval and aerial bombardment of North Korea’s military and economic infrastructure, with particular attention given to its nuclear arsenal and research facilities. Many of these air sorties would be flown from bases in Japan or from U.S. vessels that use Japan as their home port. While Japan’s own military would be unlikely to participate, the country’s logistical involvement basically renders that fact academic.
China, which entered the Korean War in 1950 when it appeared the U.S. would prevail, would face a serious dilemma. Since there is no Chinese “trip-wire” force stationed within North Korea, the decision on whether to enter the conflict would not be as automatic as it would be for U.S. forces. The Chinese would seek to avoid a direct clash with the U.S.; therefore, initial Chinese reactions likely would involve active diplomacy to effect a cease-fire. Should that fail, the extent to which China continues to supply weaponry and other resources to the North would likely determine whether the conflict could be contained between the two Koreas (and the U.S.) or if an escalation is inevitable.
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