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 “Götterdämmerung.” 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.


  1. In keeping with your final paragraph:

    George Carlin once said, “I leave symbols for the symbol-minded.” While it might not be a deterrent, per se, I’d love to see SK knock down one major symbol per NK provocation. Flatten the Ryugyong Hotel, for instance, then start knocking down those Great Leader statues. Shell the stadium where the Arirang Festival takes place, powder the King Il-sung hall of gifts, blast away one leg of the NK Arc de Triomphe and let it topple, etc. If nothing else, such strikes would drive NK nuts. Whether they would demoralize the populace, embolden them to rebel, or solidify their loyalty to the Dear Leader, I have no idea, but if we think purely in terms of symbols, Pyongyang is a target-rich environment.


  2. Mr. Stanton, you probably know this already, but the graybeards, PhDs, retired and active duty Soldiers are discussing Irregular Warfare on the Korean Peninsula at the Small wars Journal.

    The purpose of this paper is to explore some of the potential outcomes on the Korean Peninsula following either collapse of the Kim Family Regime or following conventional and unconventional conflict with north Korea as well as to examine some of the possible ways to prepare for and deal with those outcomes. While optimistic planners and policy makers hope for a co-called “soft landing” and peaceful reunification of the Peninsula, prudence calls for planning for the worse case scenarios.

    Kevin, you are dreaming a dream I have dreamt many a day!

  3. KCJ, KJI will be perished by 4-21-2012, trust me, no need to dream for his future. Remember, the future does not exist, and has never existed by both science and fact. But I tell you this, Kim Jong Il will most certainly be dead by April 21st 2012 , he will produce fireworks before he goes though. But China by that time will have finally put little borther’s fireworks out,

  4. What about Russia? Victor Cha says, ” …the U.S. should enlist Russia to begin informal talks with North Korea about nuclear deterrence. The purpose of such talks would be to undercut any false notions Kim might have that a few nukes in the basement permit him to provoke recklessly.”

    The Russians have not been willing to say that North Korea sank the Cheonan. I don’t know if they’re cooperating with the sanctions or undermining them. I’d like to know more about Russia’s activities relaled to North Korea. If our relations with them are really reset, and if the Senate approves New START, will Russia help us to stop North Korea’s nonsense?

  5. Here is the ideological corner the DPRK has painted itself into:

    “Without fail, we must throw open the great doors to a strong and prosperous country in 2012, the hundredth anniversary of the Great Leader’s birth, and the start of a new century in the Juche era of our glorious Kim Il-sung’s Korea.” — KIM JONG-IL

    Unless one understands the sick and perverse obsession the Juche theorists have with promoting a father-child relationship between Kim Il-sung and “the happiest people on earth”, it is difficult to imagine the degree of idolatry that is required of the DPRK’s rank and file. They are expected to believe every syllable uttered by the Kims as though God Almighty Himself were speaking. It is a matter of filial piety and (again, sick and perverse) dependency on “the eternal leader of all Korea” that fuels expectations for 2012. It doesn’t end with the forecasted age of prosperity – supernatural occurrances of the most sentimental sort are expected as well. The cranes will descend from heaven, double rainbows will stretch across the socialist skies, and Mount Baekdu will leap with joy like a young calf, ad nauseum

    When this prediction fails, it will be interesting to see how the blow will be absorbed by the priests and prophets of Juche. Surely they will blame America, the ROK, etc… but the evil system is always aiming the accusing finger at the people of the DPRK – had they really been devout, truly been sacrificial, sincerely been committed, then would our Loving Father have blessed us with the great victory that socialism MUST achieve. The guilt trip is always going to be laid on the people because that is intrinsic to Jucheism; the Kims cannot fail – the Juche Idea cannot fail, so who does that leave?

    It is this very tension that I believe may reach critical mass within the population itself in 2012. At some point, the masses will throw off the emotional, intellectual and spiritual yoke of Jucheism simply because the only other alternative will be the intentional and willful self-destruction of the vestiges of humanity that survive among the beleagured people of North Korea today. Basically, it is Jonestown or Romania.

  6. Somebody considering Cha’s 1st recommendation? Probably not, but the timing is (how do I say this) fortuitous –

    US Army upgrades pre-positioned stocks in South Korea

    GWANGYANG, South Korea — Demonstrating the ability to rapidly equip forces for any crisis or conflict, the U.S. Army is off-loading and upgrading pre-positioned stocks from USNS Watson (T-AKR 310) at this commercial seaport on South Korea’s scenic southern coast.

    Together with several military units and commercial organizations, the 403rd Army Field Support Brigade (AFSB) is conducting the operation at the port until mid-December when all of the equipment will be loaded back on the ship and taken back to sea.

    “It’s a training event where we’re going to rehearse our download procedures and it also gives us the opportunity to perform maintenance on the equipment that is stored on the ship,” said Lt. Col. Doug Pietrowski, commander of Army Field Support Battalion-Northeast Asia. “This training opportunity will give us assurance that the equipment stored on the vessel is ready to perform its mission.”

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