Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Fateful Step

If the North Koreans are tempted to strike at the US and South Korean naval forces exercising off of South Korea's coast, as their rhetoric implies, they would be tempting fate. For while America and South Korea are willing to restrain a military response after the March South Korean corvette sinking, these allies may have vowed that the next time will not be consequences free:

The attack on the Cheonan in March, coupled with the uncertain signals coming out of Pyongyang, may have been a game-changer. This week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Bill Gates both visited South Korea and reports suggest the two sides agreed that any future such attack would have to bring a direct military response.

"If the United States and South Korea do nothing should there be a further attack, the message they send is that the North's nuclear weapons give them the ability to act with impunity in the region,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consultancy. “And China, meanwhile, genuinely feels it has lost whatever leverage it had on Pyongyang."

A North Korean attack, followed by quick South Korean (and perhaps direct American) military retaliation, could spiral into a general war across the DMZ. If that happens, despite the casualties and damage that North Korea could inflict on South Korea, the survival of the North Korean regime will rely solely on the restraint shown by South Korea and America.

Because if it looks like escalation is going to happen, South Korea and America have incentive to strike hard and strike quickly at the North Korean nuclear facilities first, and then second at the artillery looming over Seoul. North Korea knows that they too would have incentive to use their assets before they are attacked by the South Koreans, the United States, and perhaps Japan.

With Seoul burning, will South Koreans think more of the further cost of destroying the North Korean regime or the value of preventing even worse from happening in the future should North Korea perfect a nuclear weapon?

And is the North Korean regime, used to getting away with murder, capable of making that calculation before they start off this sequence?