Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Weak Kim-Chi

See if this pattern sounds familiar:

1. North Korea commits outrageous provocation towards South Korea

2. South Korea warns them very sternly that if you do this one more time, we'll really respond next time, we're super cereal

3. International community urges 'restraint', which means that the South eats @#$%. Which, frankly, they were planning on doing anyway.

4. Repeat, occasionally with escalating provocations from the North.

To nobody's surprise, we see this playing out again:


GOVERNMENTS around the world have urged North and South Korea to step back from the brink of war, after an artillery battle on a South Korean island.
President Lee of South Korea warned the North that any *further* action would be met with a "stern" military response. His Cabinet met in an emergency session in a reinforced underground bunker to discuss the latest threat from its nuclear-armed neighbour. Seoul put its armed forces on high alert after the artillery exchange, which both sides accused the other of starting.
"It is unpardonable for the North to attack civilian targets," a spokesman quoted President Lee as saying. "As the North is still in an attack position, further provocation seems to be possible and our military should be prepared to retaliate with manifold firepower."
Any further action, you understand. Which everyone understands means the latest action will not be met with anything. Also, note that it was only the attacking of civilian targets that really riled them up - apparently attacking a country's army only isn't sufficient grounds for war.

Remember this comes hot on the heals of the previous provocation:

And it comes eight months after a North Korean mini-submarine sank with a torpedo the South Korean corvette Cheonan, drowning 46 sailors, mostly students on military service.
Does anyone doubt that if the South had sank a North Korean ship and killed 46 sailors, we'd already have witnessed a full-scale war?

I don't envy the South. They're stuck next to a bunch of crazy as @#$% communists with nuclear weapons, and the commies keep pushing them around. But it's not surprising that you don't end up with a culture of self-reliant resistance to invasion when a) your defenses have been outsourced to the Yanks for the last 50 years, and b) the populace seems almost as inclined to protest their presence as send them a thank-you note.

You don't have to be a fan of the current Iraq war to realise that the Democratic party foreign policy of 'let the world's dictators get nukes, we can contain them later' has enormous problems. Even if you think that the nation-building part of the Iraq war has been an expensive disaster (and you certainly wouldn't be short of evidence to support that proposition), it certainly is nice to have one less dictator trying their hand at nuclear blackmail. In particular, everything about US foreign policy towards North Korea suggests that the west is completely incapable of negotiating well with tinpot nuclear-armed crazies. At least when there's fewer of them, you pay less in Dane-geld.

Won't it be fun in 5 years when Iran is doing this too? At least the Iranians will (or certainly ought to) know that the Israelis, unlike the South Koreans, wouldn't be responding to artillery with press releases.

[Update: Gary Brecher seconds the Holmes diagnosis that nothings going to happen here. Which is lucky, because I'd be wary to disagree with him on matters military.]


  1. It's not just the NK nukes. It's the NK artillery, arrayed on the DMZ, within range of Seoul. NK allegedly has the largest artillery force in the world.

    Yes, the U.S. is not going to let NK march its vast, starving marching army to conquer SK. SK, plus the US, can use superior technology and training to destroy NK. BUT can they do it without the NKs firing their artillery into Seoul? We're not talking about a few hundred, or even a few thousand, casualties here. We're talking about the destruction of SK's political and economic capitol, its most important (by far) city, and its population hub.

    So -- short of a headshot that takes out command and control of the artillery before it can fire, and short of an all-out attack that destroys all of the artillery, a NK/SK war will result in a Pyrrhic victory for SK. It will suffer devastating damage to its capitol city, and in a best case scenario where the NK's leaders get wiped out, there will be very many millions of hungry NKs looking for food and shelter, just over the now-open DMZ. Bad juju, man.

    I'm not saying that appeasement is the appropriate stance towards NK. I'm just saying that SK -- and the U.S. -- can't very credibly say "keep this shit up, and there will be war." It's more complicated than that.

  2. Couldn't agree more. If the central problem of nuclear weapons is that you can leverage them to extract more stuff, even before getting Nukes NK had Clinton over a barrel with a smaller version of the same game - let us get nukes, or we'll destroy Seoul with artillery.

    But the Pyrrhic part cuts both ways - the US could destroy the North in a full-scale war too, but for some reason that prospect doesn't seem to deter the North in the way that it deters the South. That's the sense in which it's problematic to be the guy more reluctant to fight. Once you're in a situation of mutually assured destruction, they're going successfully bargain to get the whole surplus of whatever is being argued over. And at that point, it's difficult to threaten to escalate, because it's either not credible, or actually results in war.

    As long as the US is always going to lose these games of brinksmanship, it seems to suggest that they're better off with a strategy of stopping this type of situation developing. Truman advocating an armistice probably looked like a very good solution to the Korean War at the time (and may have been the right thing on balance), but the MacArthur position gets a tiny bit more vindicated every time this kind of thing happens.