Victor Cha: “There is a real possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula.”
So begins a very sober assessment from a man not known, to put it mildly, for his erratic mood swings or his turbulent creative energy. If anything, I think Cha understates the gravity of the situation. North Korea — by the way, it was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008 — has already sunk a South Korean warship, shelled a South Korean island, killed and maimed Marines and civilians, and turned the survivors of the impact zone into South Korea’s first population of war refugees since 1953. How is that not already war — even if it’s still unilateral and limited? Yet with each provocation, another limit is crossed. Cha is also right that South Korea has an urgent need for a way to deter the next escalation, which might be as unthinkable as the last ones still seem. He then gives a persuasive explanation of how conventional deterrence has lost its meaning:
President Lee Myung-bak is forced to respond with calm and measured actions every time the North provokes. The pat responses to the island shelling and the sinking of the Cheonan — of enhanced military readiness, exercises with the U.S., and diplomatic sanctions — do not work. The reality is that Pyongyang’s provocations are getting more deadly, and that Seoul’s strengths are its vulnerabilities: The more affluent, educated, and cosmopolitan South is far more wedded to the peaceful status quo than its northern neighbor, and therefore is forced to tolerate provocations even if they kill soldiers or civilians. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il sees this vulnerability and will continue to exploit it to extort concessions from the U.S. and South Korea. This is a losing strategic spiral for the South. It will soon feel compelled to break it.
When the South Koreans respond to this or future provocations, it will likely be a serious but pinpointed display of military force. The purpose would be to stop the cycle of North Korean provocation through deterrence, but it could very well ignite a major war.
Which brings us to where Cha gets it wrong. Notwithstanding this persuasive deconstruction of conventional deterrence, he still argues that we can only restore it by flooding South Korea with American targets soldiers (long ago, I was one of them). Then, almost as an afterthought, Cha argues that we seek the permission of the spineless Ban Ki Moon and the duplicitous Hu Jintao to do what Article 51 of the U.N. Charter clearly authorizes anyway. But this is a fool’s errand. I think Victor Cha is an honest, decent, and intelligent man, but here, he seems to personify a foreign policy establishment that wasted so many precious years leaning on the only two policies it ever seems to have thought of — conventional military deterrence, which North Korea has clearly circumvented; and diplomatic appeasement, which North Korea has so profitably exploited.
It has finally occurred to most people that we need ways to deter Kim Jong Il. Belatedly, we have learned that financial sanctions can actually hurt his regime, although there’s no clear evidence that they’re working better than China’s malicious, double-dealing efforts to undermine them. North Korea’s apparent desperation might mean that sanctions are working just fine. But if you forced me to guess, I’d side with Carolyn Leddy and guess that China, South Korea’s very own Kaesong Industrial Park, and other sources of income are diluting their potency. I doubt, then, that we’re applying sanctions with the thoroughness, determination, or patience necessary to really inhibit Kim Jong Il’s capacity to provoke, threaten, proliferate, or oppress. Similarly, I do not believe that Kim Jong Il cares particularly that the International Criminal Court might eventually get around to indicting him as a war criminal, given the relatively towering magnitude of his crimes against humanity inside North Korea itself. At best, this would be yet another embarrassment for Kim’s Chinese sponsors, but then, no visible sign of conscience seems to inhibit China’s sponsorship of Sudan, Burma, or Iran.
Stated bluntly, deterrence is about making your enemy afraid of hurting you. But Kim Jong Il does not fear war, and given his health, I do not think he even fears death, so long as death does not come this way. What I believe Kim Jong Il fears has no English word that expresses the idea quite so well as “GÃ¶tterdÃ¤mmerung.” He fears the spiritual and historical apocalypse of his deiocracy, and his messianic place in its history. Are we prepared to attach that consequence to his atrocities? Because if we are, and if we’re not yet out of time and luck, we can restore deterrence after all.