Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Parameters of our Limits

America and South Korea are at a heightened state of alert over North Korean threats:

South Korean and U.S. troops raised their alert Thursday to the highest level since 2006 after North Korea renounced its truce with the allied forces and threatened to strike any ships trying to intercept its vessels.

The move was a sign of heightened tensions on the peninsula following the North's underground nuclear test and its firing of a series of short-range missiles earlier this week.

In response, Seoul decided to join more than 90 nations that have agreed to stop and inspect vessels suspected of transporting banned weapons.

North Korea says South Korea's participation in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative is a prelude to a naval blockade and raises the prospect of a naval skirmish in its western waters.

On Wednesday, it renounced the 1953 truce that halted fighting in the Korean War. It said Thursday through its official media that it was preparing for an American-led attack. The U.S. has repeatedly denied it is planning military action.

There isn't a lot we can do militarily against North Korea, without triggering North Korean military responses that are unacceptable to South Korea. And without South Korea's full cooperation, no military option is going to be decisive. And when you consider that each of the nations interested in North Korea have different objectives, it is no wonder that constructing a policy on North Korea seems as hard as herding kittens.

Waiting for North Korea to collapse and trying to squeeze North Korea as much as the weakest link of our alliance will allow is the only real option we have as long as North Korea does not have nuclear missiles capable of reaching our territory.

And always keep in mind that North Korea isn't our main threat despite their nuclear ambitions. Iran is the main threat, with their combination of support for Sunni and Shia jihadis, their nuclear ambitions, and their oil and position astride the Persian Gulf oil export sea lanes. North Korea is a proliferation threat and a threat to Seoul even without nukes because of the thousands of artillery pieces pointed at Seoul, but until they have long-range nuclear missiles that can penetrate any missile defenses we have, North Korea is not a direct threat to America.

But also keep in mind that all of our limitations on military action that restrict what we can do fall away if North Korea attacks South Korea. Any serious military action against North Korea requires South Korea's army and territory. Be clear, if North Korea gets nuclear ICBMs, we don't need South Korean cooperation in order to launch a serious air and missile campaign against North Korea's nuclear infrastructure. But if we are talking about military responses to North Korea right now, we need South Korea.

Once South Korea is fully in should North Korea initiate fighting, our options expand. Indeed, the existence of thousands of artillery pieces (tube and rocket) aimed at Seoul that deter South Korean-initiated military action,combined with the shifting balance of power in Seoul's favor, actually propel South Korea to expand their military goals once shooting starts:

If a crisis erupts on the Korean peninsula and the North Koreans fire even a warning barrage at Seoul, I expect the South Korean army to march north of the DMZ and carve out a no-launch zone in an arc around Seoul to protect their capital and home to a quarter of the population from North Korean artillery. And if the attack is focused just on a no-launch zone, will Pyongyang unleash nukes that might be shot down and which would trigger an American nuclear retaliation?

The North Korean army will soon be too weak to even defend their territory let alone conquer South Korea.

I just don't think that the North Korean leadership really understands how bad their strategic position is relative to South Korea, Japan, and America. Who in North Korea would risk telling the truth given the price of being less than totally hard line?

I've got a bad feeling about this whole crisis. Not since 1994 have I felt that a Korean crisis could spiral to war. I'm confident that we'd win that shooting war, but what would the price be? This is why, as long as North Korea appears far from having the ability to directly attack us with nukes, I've always favored squeezing North Korea to push for their collapse. We can win without a hot war.

And then there is that worry that Iran wouldn't mind sacrificing North Korea to keep us involved with the junior member of the Axis of Evil while they finish their nuclear business. Sure, this crisis is most likely driven by internal North Korean political infighting, but Iran might stir the pot for their own purposes, hoping for a big distraction from dealing with Iran.

And with a win under our belt over North Korea, would the Obama administration be more or less likely to rest on its unanticipated laurels and fail to aggressively deal with Iran?

North Korea could be the biggest--and bloodiest--Red Herring of all.

UPDATE: Just after posting, a story (tip to Instapundit) on the problems of war.