Monday, May 17, 2010

Korea: Teetering on Calamity

Last March, an explosion sank a South Korean Navy Ship, the Cheonan killing 46 sailors. This week, an investigation concluded that the ship had been destroyed by a weapon, probably a German-made torpedo. North Korea’s Stalinist regime has the aptitude and attitude to conduct covert naval attacks with enough plausible deniability to evade responsibility. There is no question but what North Korea has the weapons, and it has intent -- decades of demonstrated intent. For 60 years, North Korea has been attacking South Korea and threatening its neighbor, Japan.

The Korean War began 60 years ago this June, and believe it or not, it never officially ended! An armistice holds combat in tenuous abeyance, not a peace treaty. You can not help but wonder if this latest attack isn't som
e sort of macabre anniversary celebration, appealing to the morbid psyche of North Korea's dictator, Kim Jong-Il. Pyongyang's nuclear quest explains the caution stirring this strange twilight of an old war. Caution is being expressed in Washington and followed to the point of kowtow by both The United States and South Korean governments that were hoping the Cheonan suffered a tragic accident.

The South Korean people, however, are outraged. So now, finally, their government (if only for its own political survival) says it is preparing a response. That response should include South Korea’s demand for reparations for the Cheonan. The problem is, if the North fails to comply, what then? Talk does not seem to have much effect on mass-murdering dictators. When Adolf Hitler militarized the Rhineland, the Western allies talked -- and the Nazis became more audacious. The Rhineland was a strategic probe of allied will. Sinking the Cheonan is a probe of the U.S.-South Korean relationship and ultimately a probe of President Obama's commitment to mutual defense. Unfortunately, his diplomatic track record, and his personality have demonstrated an inclination towards appeasement.

The West has been trying economic and political sanctions. North Korean elites, however, shield themselves from the consequences of sanctions. Besides, any truly effective sanctions would require thorough Chinese support. Securing firm support is unlikely as long as Beijing sees South Korean and U.S. leadership as unwilling and unlikely to use military action.

Without sanctions, what other options are there? Well, destroying some Northern naval facilities by air attack is an option, though this involves striking land targets, which obviously risks North Korea seeing this as escalation and a further excuse to attack the South.

Another way which exposes and exploits North Korean strategic weakness before a world audience and has more political impact would be a kind of naval “tit for tat”. Seoul and Washington should consider seizing North Korean ships in open waters around the world. Ships and cargoes could then be held pending reparations. In Asia, Pyongyang might route its ships through Chinese and Vietnamese coastal waters (paying bribes to local coast guards in the process), but eventually they will encounter the U.S. Navy, something they have learned to avoid as much as possible.

In the Rhineland fiasco, the Western allies lost face. This Korean confrontation is also about political face, and it's time Kim and his killers lost theirs.

South Korea and the United States, its closest ally, cannot avoid forcefully responding to the Cheonan attack because it encourages a fully nuclear-capable North Korea to act even more boldly and more brutally.

Today's Fun Picture


Ted Leddy said...


It would appear that any option is rife with danger. Particularly now that the North has nukes although I am not sure, do they have the ability to deliver nukes ?

By the way I enjoy your blog very much

Ted (Ireland)

Gary said...

Thank you, Ted, for stopping by and taking the time to comment. I am very glad you enjoy my little blog.

You are right, anything we do is dangerous but acting quickly may be the best way to avoid even more danger later on. It appears North Korea does not yet have an effective way of delivering the nukes, but they are trying and are testing new and improved missile systems. They now have the ability to hit our Pacific coast but the missiles are currently unreliable and not very accurate. That is bound to change.

Ted Leddy said...


Even though I assume they would have the ability to launch a nuclear attack against south Korea using their air force, or am I incorrect ?

I suppose the ultimate question for those in the White House and the Pentagon is this. What type of dictator is Kim IL Jong ? Is he the type that wants to die a rich old man or does he want to provoke a war with the south to reunite the country on his terms.

It reminds me of Syngman Rhee, the south Korean dictator who admitted in later life that he deliberately acted in an unpredictable manner in order to confuse his enemies. I think it was referred to as the mad man theory. Perhaps his bitter northern enemy Kim IL Sung taught this tactic to his son.

Gary said...

Your right again. N. Korea has the ability to use it's air force to use nukes on the south and that makes the situation even more dangerous. They would not need them however, because Seoul, the South Korean capital, is already within reach of long range artillery and the North has 1,106,000 people in the active armed forces and 4,700,000 in reserves compared to South Korea's 540,00 man army and 3,000,000 reserves.
As for their intentions, that's a good question. The North has been wanting reunification but the motivation is likely more due to the south's economic success than political philosophy.