Monday, May 24, 2010

More of the Same

"Ready for War" screams the blood-red headline at the Drudge Report, accompanied by a photo of a South Korean soldier, staring down the sight of his M-16. At the link, readers find an Associated Press story, via MSNBC, reminding us that these are dangerous times on the Korean peninsula.

According to the AP account, Washington has offered its support for Seoul's plan to slash trade with North Korea and haul its communist rival before the UN Security Council, in response to last month's torpedo attack that sank a ROK Navy vessel, killing 46 sailors.

[South Korean] President Lee Myung-bak laid out the economic and diplomatic measures aimed at striking back at the impoverished North, including halting some trade and taking the regime before the Security Council.

International investigators concluded last week that a torpedo from a North Korean submarine tore apart the warship Cheonan on March 26 in the Yellow Sea off the west coast in one of South Korea's worst military disasters since the 1950-53 Korean War.

Lee said it was another example of "incessant" provocation by North Korea, including a 1983 attack in Myanmar on a South Korean presidential delegation that killed 21 people, and the bombing of an airliner in 1987 that claimed 115 lives.

"We have always tolerated North Korea's brutality, time and again. We did so because we have always had a genuine longing for peace on the Korean peninsula," Lee said in a solemn speech at the War Memorial.

"But now things are different. North Korea will pay a price corresponding to its provocative acts," he said, calling it a "critical turning point" on the tense Korean peninsula, still technically in a state of war because the fighting ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.

For its part, Pyongyang has denied any involvement in the sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean corvette. Late last week, a government spokesman said any attempt to punish Pyongyang would result in "all-out war."

It's the kind of threat that North Korea has made on countless occasions in the past. And, come to think of it, if this incident (and the international reaction) seem vaguely familiar, it should. Once again, the DPRK is playing a game of brinkmanship, testing the reactions of South Korea, the United States and the international community.

Indeed, the AP story reminds us that Pyongyang has played this game before. Twenty-three years ago, on the personal orders of Kim Jong-il, North Korean agents placed a bomb on a ROK jetliner during a stopover in Abu Dhabi. The plane blew up over the Adaman Sea, enroute to South Korea; 115 passengers and crew members aboard the aircraft were killed.

The airliner attack came only four years after other DPRK operatives tried to decapitate key members of South Korean government, during a state visit to Burma. Twenty-one people--including several cabinet officials--died when when a series of explosions ripped through the country's martyr's memorial, a planned stop for the South Korean delegation. Then-ROK President Chun Doo-hwan escaped injury only because he was running behind schedule, and wasn't present when the bombs went off. Once again, the attack was again linked to Kim Jong-il, then the #2 leader in the North Korean regime.

Yet, those deadly incidents represent only a fraction of Pyongyang's strikes against South Korea and the United States. An AP chronology lists at least nine major attacks by North Korea since 1967. During that same period, the DPRK has also lashed out at the U.S., capturing the intelligence collection ship, the USS Pueblo, in January 1968. A U.S. sailor died and the rest of the crew was held in brutal captivity for almost a year, before being released.

Fourteen months later, DPRK fighter jets shot down a U.S. Navy EC-121 "Warning Star" aircraft over the Sea of Japan, killing the entire 31-man crew. And, in August 1976, a group of North Korean soldiers attacked a tree-clearing party in the Joint Security Area in the DMZ. Two U.S. Army officers were murdered.

Collectively, these incidents have claimed the lives of hundreds of South Koreans and U.S. military personnel. But the response to the murderous provocations have been remarkably similar. While the Pueblo capture prompted an American military build-up on the peninsula (and there was a show-of-force after the tree-chopping episode), recent reactions have been more muted, limited to diplomatic protests and attempts at expanded sanctions.

Obviously, this sort of "punishment" doesn't strike fear in the heart of Kim Jong-il and his senior generals. So, North Korea has continued its series of violent confrontations, culminating in the March torpedo attack on the Cheonan. From Pyongyang's perspective, it's a convenient way to refocus world attention on its "concerns" (read: more aid and concessions from Washingon and Seoul), and that tactic succeeds more often than not.

This time around, the South Korean government is promising to take a tougher stance. After the results of the Cheonan inquiry were announced, various ROK officials stated their country would now exercise its inherent right to self-defense. The U.S. quickly lined up behind its ally, promising expanded "consultations" between senior American generals and their South Korean counterparts.

But that hardly represents a change in policy. South Korea military forces have often responded to DPRK military provocations by returning fire. Indeed, last month's North Korean torpedo attack was a response--at least in part--to a series of naval battles along the Northern Limit Line, the maritime extension of the DMZ. ROK navy units got the better of those engagements, which date back more than a decade. Anxious for revenge, Kim Jong-il ordered the attack on the Cheonan.

The question now is: will Seoul expand its self-defense options, to include attacks on bases and other facilities that support North Korea attacks. Under that scenario, a DPRK-initiated firefight along the DMZ could not only bring return fire in that sector, but possible air and missile strikes on support elements for North Korean units that launched the attack. The danger, of course, is that Pyongyang could respond in kind, causing the incident to spiral out of control.

As for that "close" coordination between U.S. and South Korean military leaders, that also represents a continuation of long-standing policies. For more than 50 years, the four-star American general who leads U.S. forces in South Korea has also been designated as the wartime commander of ROK forces. While that arrangement is slated to change by 2012, the level of coordination between U.S. and South Korean military leaders will not. Senior officers work side-by-side and interact on a daily basis. Aside from "special planning" for a specific contingency operation, it's hard to see how U.S.-ROK military coordination could significantly increase over present levels.

Put another way, Washington and Seoul are going through the usual motions that follow a major North Korean provocation. There will be talk of closer military coordination; vows of a less restrictive "self-defense" policy and even consultations with China. But in the end, little will change. Over the coming months, military alert levels will be relaxed and we may see a resumption of nuclear talks--provided the U.S. and South Korea deliver more aid. At that point, relations on the peninsula will return to "normal" and we'll keep muddling along--until North Korea stages the next crisis.


ADDENDUM: As is normally the case, the current stand-off in Korea has raised speculation about the possible resumption of hostilities (remember: the Korean War ended with an armistice, not a formal surrender). While anything is possible in the Land of the Morning Calm--particularly with Kim Jong-il calling the shots in Pyongyang--the prospects for war are decidedly low, for a rather obvious reason: North Korean military readiness is at its lowest point in the summer months, when troops are normally dispatched to work in the fields. Many units actually stop training in the summer time and those still on the job (including the North Korean Air Force) operate at greatly reduced levels.

As a result, most analysts believe that a major DPRK attack would likely occur in the February or March, towards the end of the annual Winter Training Cycle (WTC), when readiness levels are at their peak. Still, Pyongyang retains sufficient combat power to threaten its enemies in the south, through artillery sites along the DMZ (that can actually target much of Seoul); missile attacks and operations by special forces personnel. Earlier today, Kim Jong-il reportedly told his military to "prepare for war." That's probably a bluff, but in Korea, one never knows.

And, lest we forget, the Korean War began in the summer--60 years ago next month.


Corky Boyd said...

When the country first looked at the dangers of nuclear proliferation 50 years ago, one of the models was the failed state model.

In it, a state that could not feed itself developed nuclear weapons and blackmailed neighboring states into supporting it.

The parallels are eerily similar to N Korea, though not as simplistic. The main difference is the failed state model usually had a scheming, but rational leader, where N Korea's is erratic and paranoid. And that is the danger.

sykes.1 said...

What is the prospect of a major South Korean attack on the North?