Since I served in Korea years ago, I’ve feared that North Korea would try a limited artillery strike as a way to raise the stakes. It looks like my fears have been realized:
South Korea says two marines have been killed and 16 others injured in a North Korean bombardment of a South Korean island near the countries’ disputed western sea border. South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff said Tuesday that it returned fire and scrambled fighter jets in response. It said the “inhumane” attack on civilian areas violated the 1953 armistice halting the Korean War. [AP, Kwang-Tae Kim]
Since North Korea sank the South Korean warship Cheonan and killed 46 members of her crew, I’ve struggled with the question of restoring the deterrence that clearly hasn’t existed since then (and I wonder how the South’s Fifth Column will try to deny North Korea’s culpability this time, though you can be sure they will try). There has to come a point where a provocation draws a consequence, including a military consequence. By any reasonable standard, we reached that point last March, and we’ve reached it again today.
The thing is, though, it’s not really deterrence unless the consequence you threaten is something someone is afraid you’ll do, and a limited war may be just what the Kim Dynasty wants right now. The North Korean people are increasingly restive, and they’ve never been more economically independent. Nationalism may be the only message the regime can broadcast that the North Korean people are still listening to. The regime may be desperate to change the subject from how much everyone hates Kim Jong Eun to the topic of foreign enemies, thus to reconsolidate its fraying domestic control. So if we finally opt for a military response, it had better be something determined enough to really reduce the threat. That would mean taking out the “Y-sites” and other artillery emplacements, and as many of its short-to-medium range ballistic missiles as we can find.
Not ready for that? Then we’re back to dealing with the “root cause” of the problem — the regime itself. And that’s not going to provide us any quick gratification. As a deterrent, it’s not so easy to calibrate. (For new readers, I’ve written much more extensively about how to overthrow the Kim Dynasty here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4.)
Here’s a little something to consider, however — before the G-20 summit, South Korea threatened an all-out propaganda war if the North did anything to ruin it. Despite North Korea’s ongoing desire to terrorize and extort the South, the G-20 passed without incident. Was the South Korean threat the kind of deterrence that the military, including USFK, has ceased to be? It’s something to think about. (I continue to think the South Koreans are aren’t even talking about going about this the right way. Forget the silly signboards and music videos at the DMZ. The single most effective thing South Korea could do to weaken the regime’s control over the North Korean population is to broadcast a signal that would give ordinary North Koreans international and domestic cell phone service. Just let them talk, and hear . . . and trade, smuggle, grumble, plot, and conspire. I’ve done some research and spoken to a technical expert. This could actually be done from South Korean territory.)
Finally, China must be held jointly responsible for this incident. Its shielding of North Korea from the consequences of the Cheonan Incident emboldened and encouraged this provocation. China will want to do the same this time, and that will encourage the next escalation. Already, I see a shift in the thinking in D.C. on China. People who had inclined to seeing China as a “strategic partner” have come to see it as a slightly unethical rival. Those who held the latter view now see it as an enemy. The latter group is about to get bigger. It’s about time it did. We now find ourselves in need not only for a way to deter North Korea, but also a way to deter China.
Update: When I want to know how South Koreans are going to react to something, I consult with my
wife focus group, since she’s always been an uncannily accurate barometer of the Korean Street. Well, my focus group hasn’t sounded this much like John Bolton since Kim Dae Jung was President. If the Koreas aren’t at war the day after tomorrow, some of the fury will subside, but the anger at and distrust of North Korea will persist for a while.
Update 2: Gateway Pundit has video:
At the end, you can hear absolute terror in the cries of the civilian population there.
We’ve also heard from President Lee Myung-Bak, a man with a disturbing tendency to mean what he says:
President Lee Myung-bak ordered his military Tuesday to punish North Korea for its artillery attacks “through action,” not just words, saying it is important to stop the communist regime from contemplating additional provocation. “The provocation this time can be regarded as an invasion of South Korean territory. In particular, indiscriminate attacks on civilians are a grave matter,” a stern-faced Lee said during a visit to the headquarters of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in central Seoul. [….]
“Reckless attacks on South Korean civilians are not tolerable, especially when South Korea is providing North Korea with humanitarian aid,” the president said. “As for such attacks on civilians, a response beyond the rule of engagement is necessary. Our military should show this through action rather than an administrative response” such as statements or talks, he added.
He did not rule out the possibility of follow-up attacks.
“Given that North Korea maintains an offensive posture, I think the Army, the Navy and the Air Force should unite and retaliate against (the North’s) provocation with multiple-fold firepower,” Lee said. “I think enormous retaliation is going to be necessary to make North Korea incapable of provoking us again.” [Yonhap]
A friendly reminder: we have 24,500 U.S. military personnel and tens of thousands of American civilians in South Korea.
Update 3: Here’s a statement from the White House:
Earlier today North Korea conducted an artillery attack against the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. We are in close and continuing contact with our Korean allies. The United States strongly condemns this attack and calls on North Korea to halt its belligerent action and to fully abide by the terms of the Armistice Agreement. The United States is firmly committed to the defense of our ally, the Republic of Korea, and to the maintenance of regional peace and stability.