Friday, November 26, 2010

Living By the Sword

The North Koreans, after killing sailors in March and troops and civilians this month, screech that South Korea is pushing the region to the brink of war:

North Korea warned Friday that U.S.-South Korean plans for military maneuvers put the peninsula on the brink of war, and appeared to launch its own artillery drills within sight of an island it showered with a deadly barrage this week.
China, as usual, is of no help:

China warned on Friday against military acts near its coastline ahead of U.S.-South Korean naval exercises that North Korea, days after shelling a South Korean island, said risked pushing the region toward war.

Beijing's warning came as the Seoul government named a career soldier as its new defense minister amid mounting criticism of the response to Tuesday's attack by North Korea, its heaviest bombardment since the 1950-53 Korean War.

We are fools to believe China will help control North Korea at the expense of having North Korea as a friendly little dangerous pit bull that snarls at South Korea, Japan, and America.

But this is all part of a communist tendency to think their actual violence is just self defense and our exercises push us to the brink of war.

South Korea's views are key. South Korea would beat North Korea if it comes to war. But the capital Seoul could be severely damaged with potentially high civilian casualties in the process of winning that war. This is the basic problem, as I've often noted. So far, North Korea has been able to count on South Korea (and America and Japan, to be fair) flinching from paying the price to defeat North Korea in the face of increasingly bloody provocations.

To complicate the crisis response more, given how North Korea is deterioriating, doing nothing to escalate to war may actually be the smart policy for South Korea. If squeezing North Korea as we are doing will lead to the collapse of North Korea, why provoke a very expensive war (even though you will win it) if looking like passive cowards will ultimately be the least expensive path to victory for South Korea?

As Strategypages explains:

Many South Koreans are now demanding a military response, but the majority of southerners will do almost anything to avoid a major war. Over the last decade, southerners have become less tolerant of northern extortion tactics, and have cut off most aid. So the north has done what any criminal gang would do, it has sent a message. The question is, do you call in the cops, or give in? In this case, it's uncertain if the "cops" (U.S. and South Korea armed forces) can do anything that will work. Military commanders point out that the North Korean military is not invincible, and is vulnerable. Nearly two decades of food shortages, and economic collapse up north have had an effect on the military. North Korean troops, who grew up during the first rounds of famine in the 1990s, are noticeably shorter than the previous generation. There's not enough money to train, or maintain the vast North Korea arsenal of vehicles, weapons and other equipment. There's lots of evidence of this, from satellite photos, electronic chatter, and the thousands of North Korean refugees who have made it to South Korea in the last few years (and many more who made it to China, and can be reached by journalists, and intelligence agencies.) But the North Korean leadership knows this as well. Without massive aid, the northern military will continue to rot, and the North Korean people will become more unruly. Already, anti-government graffiti is showing up in the north. This was unheard of until recently. The security agencies up there are becoming corrupt, as a result of the shortages, and the creation of a limited market economy to try and prevent more widespread starvation and privation. Many in the north, especially in the ruling Kim family, would rather go out with a bang, rather than a whimper (or a firing squad). The U.S. says it will not reward bad behavior, but South Korea and Japan, being within range of North Korean weapons, are not so sure of that approach.

My gut feeling is that South Korea can afford to respond more forcefully to these attacks without provoking a general war. But this relies on assuming that the North Koreans understand that they would lose a general war. Do they? Also,at some level you also have to worry that simply taking these attacks will demoralize your own people and military to a dangerous degree. Can South Korea endure more of these attacks and remain too strong to lose if North Korea launches an invasion?

North Korea is running a huge risk of carrying out an aggressive policy that they no longer have the military means to back up. They are getting away with this mismatch between means and actions so far. One day South Korea will not go along, and North Korea will die by the sword.