A North Korean round lands on South Korea's Yeonpyeong Island earlier today. The DPRK began shelling the island after South Korea refused to halt military exercises in the area. At least two ROK Marines were killed in the barrage. (KBS image via the Associated Press and Yahoo News.
UPDATE//23 November, 0900 EST//Barely a day after defense officials suggested that additional military assets would not be dispatched to South Korea, the Pentagon has announced that the USS George Washington and its battle group will join ROK naval exercises, beginning Sunday. The drills were reportedly planned before the latest confrontation between North and South Korea, but the deployment allows the U.S. to demonstrate its support of the Seoul government--and send a message to Pyongyang.
However, the North Korean regime will likely be unimpressed; they've witnessed similar American shows-of-force in the past. But from a military perspective, having a carrier in Korean waters is clearly beneficial; it almost doubles the number of U.S. strike aircraft in the vicinity, should they be needed.
For Barack Obama, that proverbial 3 a.m. phone call actually came an hour later. According to the White House, the President was awakened at 4 a.m. and told that North Korean artillery was firing on South Korean military positions--and civilian neighborhoods--on Yeonpyeong Island, located off the DPRK coast. At least two ROK Marines died in the bombardment; South Korean forces returned fire, triggering an artillery duel that lasted almost an hour. North Korean casualties are unknown, but the Seoul government said they could be "heavy."
It was one of the most serious confrontations between the two nations since the Korean War ended in 1953--and it came only months after a North Korean submarine torpedoed a ROK corvette in the Yellow Sea, killing 46 South Korean sailors.
And how did the Administration react? Earlier today, the White House put out a standard statement "condemning" the attack, and urging North Korea to halt its "belligerent action." But, according to Fox News, President Obama has reportedly ruled out sending more U.S. military forces to the region. A senior American military official told Fox that "no one is interested in escalating this, but we are taking this very seriously."
Let's review for a moment. South Korea, a key U.S. ally, has been attacked once again by North Korea. True, the ROK military was conducting artillery drills in the area at the time, but those rounds were fired into open waters. Meanwhile, Pyongyang demanded that South Korea cease its military training, and opened fire on Yeonpyeong when Seoul failed to comply. According to press reports, at least 50 North Korean shells landed on the island. It was clearly no accident--or a case of hot-headed local commanders exceeding their authority. The DPRK would not continue the bombardment of a South Korean island for almost an hour without approval of senior officials in Pyongyang.
And, this latest attack comes only days after the North Korean government showed a new uranium enrichment facility to a visiting delegation of U.S. scientists. Completion of the complex (built over the past year), gives Kim Jong-il yet another path to producing more nuclear weapons, or more powerful atomic devices. Collectively, the facility tour and today's artillery raid were designed to re-focus U.S. attention on North Korea, with the implied threat of more serious provocations if the Obama Administration fails to comply with Pyongyang's demands on the nuclear issue and other matters.
Clearly at his limit, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak threatened "enormous retaliation" against the DPRK. Mr. Lee clearly understands the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear stockpile and its massive conventional forces. The next DPRK artillery barrage could be easily directed against Seoul, a sprawling megalopolis of 12 million people that lies less than 50 miles from the DMZ. Against that backdrop, President Lee would probably appreciate a stronger show of support from the United States, beyond Robert Gibbs's assertion that we're "strongly committed" to the defense of South Korea.
Indeed, U.S. officials seem to be operating on the assumption that tensions on the Korean peninsula will gradually ease, as they have in the past. Obviously, this isn't the first time North Korea has attacked its southern neighbor. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there were a series of high-profile strikes by the DPRK, ranging from a commando assault of the Blue House (South Korea's presidential mansion) to the bombing of a ROK jetliner over the Indian Ocean, and the infamous Rangoon bombing, where North Korean agents tried to assassinate the South Korean president during a state visit to Burma. After each of those incidents, tensions between North and South Korea eventually subsided, and war was avoided.
Indeed, some would argue that today's attack pales in comparison to previous provocations. The deaths of two ROK Marines is a serious matter in Seoul, but it's not on the same scale as the downing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987 (which resulted in the deaths of 115 passengers and crew members), or North Korea's first nuclear test in 2006.
But there is also a danger in down-playing the significance of today's artillery duel. The shelling of Yeonpyeong is reminiscent of those earlier attacks in this sense: all occurred during a time of political transition in North Korea. Thirty years ago, Kim Jong-il was trying to prove himself a worthy successor to his father, Kim Il-sung. As his portfolio within the government expanded, the younger Kim was the architect of this highly provocative attacks against the ROK government and Korean Air, with little regard for the potential consequences.
In that sense, the strikes achieved their intended goal: Kim Jong-il gained support from the North Korean military and intelligence services, which allowed him to consolidate power after his father's death in 1994. Sixteen years later, the DPRK dictator has anointed his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as heir apparent, despite his youth and inexperience. Following the example of his father, it's quite conceivable that Kim Jong-un would push for more provocations of South Korea and the U.S., to help Pyongyang achieve its geo-political goals--and improve his chances of holding power after the death of Kim Jong-il.
But there are also distinct differences between 1980 and 2010. Economically, the DPRK is bankrupt; if the Kims have some sort of grand strategy for ensuring their nation's survival, time is not on their side. The window of opportunity for military action is closing. At some point, Pyongyang will not be able to sustain its military complex; but by "managing" confrontations with Washington and Seoul, North Korea can forestall its collapse. In the early 1990s, the leading intelligence analysts in the U.S. and South Korea believed that North Korea would be gone within 20 years. Pyongyang's continued existence is a reflection of the regime's survival skills--and our own intelligence shortfalls.
The strategic calculus is further muddled by economic and political changes over the past 30 years. China was an economic weakling three decades ago; today, it's a powerhouse that holds trillions of dollars in American debt. Given that reality, Washington can no longer act unilaterally in northeast Asia. And so far, Beijing has been unwilling to punish North Korea.
But that doesn't mean that China wants chaos on the peninsula, or that our military option is completely off the table. Indeed, the biggest difference between the early 80s and today may be our lack of leadership on the issue of North Korea. Beginning with Bill Clinton (and continuing with his successors), the U.S. has tried a mix of appeasement and multi-lateral diplomacy to prevent another war between North and South Korea. That goal has been achieved, but at a steep price. We now have a nuclear-armed (and emboldened) regime in Pyongyang that is quite willing to press its luck.
That's why it's time to discuss the unthinkable: what comes next. What are we prepared to do the next time Kim Jong-il attacks South Korea, beyond the normal diplomatic outrage, and consultations with our partners in the area? If we don't have a Plan B, then others may fill that power vacuum.
You see, there's one more regional change worth noting. Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan are now advanced economic and technological powers. If Tokyo, Seoul and Taipei perceive (correctly) that the U.S. is unable--or unwilling--to protect them, those nations may exercise other options, namely developing their own nuclear deterrent. All three have the ability to develop nuclear weapons within 18 months. If you think Northeast Asia is a scary place right now, imagine that region where everyone is nuclear-armed, and the U.S. is little more than a by-stander, by its own choosing.
ADDENDUM: We should also remember that today's artillery barrage comes at the start of the North Korean military's annual Winter Training Cycle. Military readiness will steadily increase over the next four months before peaking in late March. That will give Pyongyang even more options for provoking South Korea, the U.S. and Japan. Mr. Obama should expect more 3 a.m. calls from the peninsula in the coming months.