Sunday, December 19, 2010

The Tinderbox

UPDATE//1000 EST, 20 Dec// South Korea's planned live-fire drill went off today without a hitch--and without interference from North Korea. The semi-official Yonhap news agency reports that ROK artillery units fired more than 1,500 shells into the Yellow Sea near Yeonpyeong Island, which was shelled by North Korean forces after a similar drill last month. Pyongyang later released a statement saying it did not feel the need to "retaliate against every despicable military provocation."

Translation: With two South Korean destroyers in the area, and scores of ROKAF F-16s circling overhead, the North Koreans decided not to press their luck.

Unfortunately, this period of confrontation and clashes on the Korean Peninsula is far from over. With the DPRK government in a period of transition, there is every reason to believe that North Korea will strike again, trying to burnish the credentials of Kim Jong un, the dictator-in-waiting. And, with Pyongyang's armed forces in the middle of its annual Winter Training Cycle (WTC), there are more options for military show-downs with the South (and U.S. forces in the region).

Still, South Korea handled today's live-fire drill quite well. Seoul refused to cave to squishy diplomatic demands, and they backed up their exercise with the requisite force to deter North Korean adventurism. Not a bad template for going forward.


The U.N. Security Council held an emergency session today to discuss escalating tensions on the Korean peninsula. And, as you might expect, the event was more show than substance.

Russia called for the meeting, asking for the UNSC to adopt a statement calling on North and South Korea to "exercise maximum restraint." According to the Associated Press, the Russian draft also calls for efforts "to ensure a de-escalation of tensions between the two countries" and a "resumption of dialogue and resolution of all problems dividing them exclusively through peaceful, diplomatic means."

There was a certain irony in that proposal. For much of the past week, Russian diplomats at the UN have been leaning on South Korea, with nary a word about their one-time client state in Pyongyang. Not that Russia's proposal--or any UN statement--will do any good. Toothless security council resolutions aren't worth the paper they're printed on, particularly when it comes to North Korea.

Meanwhile, the situation on the peninsula remains dire. South Korea plans to hold an artillery live-fire drill on Yeonpyeong Island, near the North Korean coast. The DPRK shelled that island last month, after a similar drill by ROK forces, who were firing into the open ocean. Pyongyang has threatened to strike even harder, if South Korea goes through with the exercise. And for good measure, Pyongyang has reportedly raised alert levels for artillery batteries along its west coast--the same units that fired on Yeonpyeong last month.

At this point, Seoul shows no signs of cancelling (or further delaying) the planned live-fire exercise. More importantly, there's no reason South Korea shouldn't proceed with the drill. Such exercises have been conducted in that area for years, and they pose no threat to North Korea. In fact, the DPRK routinely stages its own drills in the same area, firing artillery and anti-ship missiles into the Yellow Sea.

If North Korea again shells Yeonpyeong (in response to the ROK exercise), the Seoul government has vowed to up the ante, and attack targets along the DPRK coast. In fact, we're guessing that Tuesday's artillery drill will bear some resemblance to our response to the infamous "tree-cutting" incident of the 1970s, when North Korean soldiers attacked (and murdered) two American Army officers, supervising a tree-clearing operation in the Demilitarized Zone.

To remove the tree once and for all, the USFK put together a tremendous show-of-force operation. The engineer team assigned to clear the tree was backed by almost 800 other troops, plus air and artillery units. North Korean forces could see at least seven Cobra gunships circling near the DMZ, ready to provide support if necessary. On their radar screens, DPRK operators could see dozens of U.S. F-4s and B-52s (along with ROKAF F-5s) orbiting parallel to the DMZ, also ready to spring into action. Faced with allied resolve--and firepower--the North Koreans backed down. The second clearing operation was unopposed.

So, do be surprised if the South Korean artillery drill is accompanied by a large display of tactical airpower, with U.S. and ROKAF F-16s on orbit over the Yellow Sea. And, if the Obama Administration really wanted to send a signal, they could dispatch bombers from our Guam-based tasked force, and arrange for those aircraft to appear near the DMZ during the live-fire exercise. At that point, Pyongyang will have the option of renewing the conflict (and suffering significant losses), or holding fire and suffering a psychological defeat.

That's not to say that North Korea won't take the bait. Given the DPRK's current economic woes (and leadership transition), there is always the possibility that Pyongyang will bet its survival on a roll of the geopolitical dice, believing that Washington and Seoul really don't have the stomach for a second Korean War. It's a strategy that's worked so far, with both the U.S. and South Korea constantly caving to DPRK demands.

But this time may be different. The recent shelling of Yeonpyeong struck a raw nerve among the Korean public, and they are demanding action if their nation's territory is struck again. Additionally, South Korean leadership seems to be at the end of their rope in response to Kim Jong-il's antics. This time, promises of a response seem both genuine and serious.

That means the tinderbox called the Korean Peninsula is dangerously close to a wider war. Still, South Korea should stick with its plans for Tuesday's artillery drill and threats of follow-on strikes--if North Korea attacks again. This strategy carries clear risks, but so does the established practice of acceding to Pyongyang's demands. Seoul's refusal to back down might bring the region closer to war--but it might also be the first step in breaking the current cycle of letting the DPRK get what it wants through blackmail, intimidation and bluster.
ADDENDUM: South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported Sunday evening (U.S. time) that North Korea has also deployed multiple rocket launchers along its west coast, and put elements of its air force on stand-by. As some of my fighter jock friends would say, thanks for providing such a target rich environment. A rocket launcher in the field is a great target for a Viper dropping JDAM, or other precision weapons.

1 comment:

SwampWoman said...

Whew. I know it isn't over yet and that North Korea will probably do a sneak attack, but I'm relieved that it is relatively peaceful so far.