'Small war' in Korea is postponed

Today, South Korean marines proceeded with an artillery training exercise on Yeonpyeong Island. Instead of delivering "brutal consequences beyond imagination" if the exercise went ahead, the North Korean government instead concluded that it was "not worth reacting" to the 94-minute drill.

South Korea called the North's bluff and the North folded its hand, at least for now. The South boosted its leverage in several ways. First, it evacuated civilians on the island and in other forward locations. Second, it waited for clear weather and put F-15 fighter-bombers in the air, presumably in preparation for counter-battery strikes against North Korean artillery positions. Finally, about 20 U.S. soldiers participated in the exercise as observers, or more accurately as "trip-wires" for a U.S. retaliatory response against the North. The North's leaders likely concluded that in this case they did not possess escalation dominance. The North has exposed itself as a bluffer and will have to run much greater risks in the future to reestablish its reputation for ferocity.

This weekend's drama was a breakthrough for the South Korean government. Previous sable-rattling by the North typically resulted in multilateral negotiations, which usually concluded with some kind of payoff for the North in exchange for promises of future good behavior. The South Korean government now has an opportunity to break from that pattern.

China is another loser from this episode. It vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned the North for its artillery attack last month on Yeonpyeong Island. China doubled-down on its support for the North, hoping that the South would blink and refrain from its artillery exercise. China's gambit failed. China's redoubled (and fruitless) backing for North Korea has further damaged its reputation and will likely lead to greater alarm in the region about China's judgment and intentions.

We should assume that North Korea's goal was to reconvene the six-party talks for the purpose of working out a deal that would resume outside aid to the North. South Korea, the United States, and Japan have resisted this maneuver and have now called North Korea's bluff. The North has quickly adapted by taking up a new tack; they have communicated through the visiting Bill Richardson that they are —to reopen the Yongbyon nuclear complex to IAEA inspectors. The North also seems —to discuss a sale of 12,000 plutonium fuel rods to the South, which would remove from the North this potential source of bomb-grade material.

No matter how much the North needs cash, it strains credulity to believe the North would sell off its greatest trump card, its presumed status as a nuclear weapons state. The North's interest is to get a negotiation started by whatever way it can and then bargain for a transitory deal. Its attempt at coercion failed so it is now trying a different approach but with the same ultimate goal, a resumption of aid to the North. With the North's bluff having failed, the South is under no pressure to make a response.

After the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, the South Korean government took a risk when it pursued a brinkmanship strategy. That strategy has succeeded; it now has more leverage than it has had in a long time. The North's actions display internal anxiety. The South by contrast can take its time to evaluate its next moves. For the South, military preparation and strong nerves are paying off.

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Oh, I don't know Robert. South Korea has been treking along with its childish "Sunshine Diplomacy" for going on half a century now. It'll be hard to get off that drug, and many more such engagements will be necessary for anything to come of this. This is only the beginning.

Baby steps.

Mr. Smith.
With all due respect the Sunshine Policy began in 1997 during the Kim Dae Jung Administration through the Roh Myu Hunh administrationin 2007 thus only 10 years. Over the years the ROK has responded to numerous provocations on the DMZ sometimes with deadly effect and has won some significant Naval skirmishes in the West Sea (and has also suffered some significant losses ad well but every force on force fight they have acquitted themselves well). Following the Sango and Yugo sub infiltration incident inthe late 1990's the ROK wanted to respond; however Diego the nature of the combined command they could not do so unilaterally and the alliance together decided not to respond with force. I would caution against making broad generalizations about the ROK. Things are not always as they seem and most of the pundits continue to perpetuate urban legend and biases because they really do not know or take the time to learn about the situation and certainly have never experienced the complexity of the alliance relationship and the nature of the north Korean regime and it's threats.

Dave Maxwell is spot on. I worked Korea for much of the 90's, as a civilian and as military, at many levels of command and support and agree that things are not always as they seem and most of the pundits continue to perpetuate urban legend and biases because they really do not know or take the time to learn about the situation and certainly have never experienced the complexity of the alliance relationship and the nature of the north Korean regime and it's threats.

Two quick replies and then a little bit more extensive observations.

First, I wouldn't know anything about "pundits who perpetuate urban legend and biases" because not only do I not comment on SK/NK on my own blog, I do not know anyone who does extensively. Second, I understand that the so-called sunshine policy began, officially, in 1998. That leads me to my more extensive observations.

I guess I am saying that I see sunshine diplomacy as painting a happy face on what had already been going on for many years before. Nothing substantially changed.

When we get into the weeds of the Korea situation, of course it's complex and involved. I wouldn't claim otherwise. That's one reason I don't make many remarks about it. My overall complaint has nothing to do with tactics, or even strategy. Flag and staff officers implement strategy, but our strategy is connected to our policy (and is a direct function thereof).

The Kabuki theater that is the daily goings on and the regular posturing of previous dictators, and the more interesting evolution to a new dictator, is just more of the same, and as long as we continue to send grain into NK to keep the population from starving to death, nothing will substantially change. This is a failure of policy, not strategy or tactics.

Compare that with our overall policy for the South Pacific. We are allied with Japan, and have given them the same umbrella of protection, including a nuclear umbrella, that we have supplied to SK. But our alliance with Japan has brought basing rights and a presence in what might be called our near abroad, the entire South Pacific. I might disagree with having to sustain Japans defense with our own, but at least it brings a benefit.

But note that Im discussing policy and how it leads to strategy, and what might benefit us from all of this. Our half a century support and defense of SK has brought little tangible reward. Rather, our support of SK has allowed NKorean posturing, students in SK to protest the very presence of U.S. troops that keeps them safe, and allowed a robust and thriving economy to develop - in part because they didnt have to build their defense to the degree required if they had had to rely solely on their own defenses. This in the face of defense cuts in the U.S., economic problems, and throwing trillions of dollars down at the altar of Keynesian economics.

Furthermore, we have now helped to create a situation where if the Peninsula ever does unify again, the very economy we have helped to create in SK will evaporate overnight and collapse under the burden of one of the most illiterate, backwards, malnourished, most poorly trained, least industrialized countries on earth. Adding twenty million people to the roles of public assistance in SK would be like adding a hundred million in the U.S. It wont survive.

Its bears analogies to government overspending here in the U.S. Its like a drug that must at some point come to an end or kill the host. I suppose thats why I am not overjoyed at the latest manifestation of Kabuki on the peninsula. Until policy changes, resulting in a strategic change, things will stay fundamentally the same. This isnt the fault of military minds; it comes from Washington.

On the other hand, were we to have taken a much harder approach years ago, and in fact forced SK to provide for its own defense, I suspect that she would have gone nuclear by now. After all, SK nuclear engineers are better by far than NK nuclear engineers. Same for Japan (and maybe this isnt such a bad thing). And another consequence of lack of this umbrella of protection? China would be much more concerned for its own security and much less belligerent towards the U.S. than it is today. Unrestricted warfare might be a pipe dream another century from now.

Policies have consequences, and we have helped to create what will turn out by my estimation to be a horrible situation regardless of which way this turns.

Mr. Smith: Korea did help us during the war in Vietnam, something over 300,000 South Korean soldiers serving during the course of their involvement. That was of some tangible benefit to us, maybe more than a little.

I wonder when will they stop fighting with each other and work for a sustainable economic structure in the region because both of them can play a great role.