Keep Calm and Carry On

OK, I know those of you in South Korea are probably feeling a bit edgy for now, amid all of the drills, exercises, and North Koreans threats, which I’m sure our State Department would say are absolutely, positively not terrorism in any way, shape, or form. Still, I doubt that things will be quite this bad in Seoul by Monday:

I don’t think we’ve seen the end of North Korea’s escalation, and I also think Christmas is a fairly likely occasion for more of that, but the North Koreans aren’t irrational, and that’s why this won’t come to full-scale war. Kim Jong Il and those around him all know what happens to them and their regime if it does. South Koreans need to be rational now, but they also need to be brave. We’re at this literally dreadful state of affairs because for too long, too many South Koreans and Americans refused to recognize the pathology of this regime and thus enabled its capacity to terrorize the South even more (and indirectly, the United States). A few people are still incapable of understanding, or perhaps just unwilling to understand, how that cycle has vastly increased the danger to both countries over the last 20 years, as each successive leader has failed to resist the temptation to “manage” the threat out of the headlines, only to see it reemerge in some slightly more terrible and brazen form. I like the way Sung Yoon Lee put it in his latest piece for the Asia Times:

The more people in democratic societies think about the North Korean regime as a threat to humanity and less as an idiosyncratic abstraction, the more they will be resolved not to allow their leaders to resort to politically expedient measures with each future provocation or defer Korean reunification. For the South Korean leadership, breaking the taboo of potential economic costs of reunification should be a high priority. [….]

It’s time to acknowledge that while status quo maintenance in the Korean Peninsula has worked in deterring war over the past 57 years, it has all but failed in deterring North Korea’s ever-growing strategy of brinkmanship. It is also time to accept that relying on China to resolve the North Korea problem has produced few returns over the past two decades. As Pyongyang presses ahead in 2011 on its proven path of provocation-for-compensation, Beijing will, as usual, counsel patience, exhorting Washington and Seoul to let bygones be bygones and embrace the future.

I don’t happen to believe it’s too late to break that cycle, but this is one of those times when being the citizen of a free nation requires actual, physical courage. This crisis is a test, no less than the June Democracy Movement of 1987 was. I hope South Korea passes it.

9 Comments

  1. JS – I don’t believe Kim is irrational either, but I do think he is entirely capable of making a miscalculation and/or misreading the intentions of the South. From what I’ve read, and what I’ve seen – I do believe the South is going to move forward with these live fire exercises from Yeonpyeong either Monday or Tuesday and the North is likely to respond in some manner (your guess is as good as mine as to what the response will look like). Hopefully, both sides will be able to keep a lid on things and it won’t “get out of control” as Gen Cartwright fears.

    What is to be made of the fact that this spate of DPRK threats of retaliation in the event of ROK live arty drilling from Yeonpyeong Island did not just come in the form of KNCA propoganda? It appears the DPRK made similiar threats of retaliation over the SK/NK dedicated “military hotline”.

    “The South Korean puppet warmongers must immediately cancel the provocative coastal live-fire drills planned on Yeonpyeong,” the unnamed head of the North’s colonel-level military delegation said.

    The KCNA said the warning was delivered to the South’s defense ministry at around noon on Friday, calling the sea surrounding the small island part of “our sacred territorial waters.”
    http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr/news/2010/12/17/0200000000AEN20101217006200315.HTML

    I have also heard from a friend in the area that the North made a 2nd call over the military hotline later in the day around 0500 and basically repeated its warning. It’s easy to be dismissive of the North’s rhetoric, after all, hardly a day goes buy where they don’t threaten the South with nuclear annilihation. However, I am under the impression from talking with a few people familiar with the North that they don’t abuse the “hotline” and usually mean what they say when communicating through official military channels. In fact, a similar warning was conveyed from the North to the South via the “hotline” just hours before the Nov 23rd attack.




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  2. If North Korea is willing to make good on a threat to attack South Korea over a military exercise, then there’s no preventing war anyway, because North Korea is determined to find some excuse to provoke one. If there’s going to be a war, better to have one while the South Korean military is trained then after North Korea terrorizes the South into a long period without properly training its forces.

    With all that said, I don’t doubt that the North Koreans might do something, but not even they want things to escalate too far.




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  3. “but not even they want things to escalate too far.”

    I don’t doubt they want to avoid an escalation either. But from a pure military standpoint, the Korean peninsula is probably the most difficult place in the world to control a downward spiraling escalation for 2 primary reasons 1) The 38th is the most heavily militarized area in the world and 2) “Pyongyang’s grasp of potentially fast-moving events could be quite limited and slow, given the North’s relatively unsophisticated intelligence and communication systems,” Stares said. “Furthermore, the limited options for communicating with the North Korean leadership could hinder attempts to bring a rapidly deteriorating situation under control.” Paul Stares CFR

    IMO, DPRK provocations that more closely resemble “terror attacks” (taking out an airliner, attacking the Blue House) or military actions that may be plausibly deniable, at least in the short term (like the Cheonan) don’t carry the immediate risk of escalating into general warfare. But when you get a more traditional military engagement in a place like the Korean peninsula(like Yeonpyeong) with 2 opposing artillery batteries firing and counterfiring and then ROK F-15s start dropping ordinance (as they have threatened to do), Pyongyand and Seoul could easily lose control over the situation if the local/regional commanders start pressing the attacks/counterattacks.




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  4. Joel Wit, in the Foreign Policy article linked by Joshua, lost me when he recycled that fake Einstein quote. It marked him as a shallow thinker.

    I hope the North Koreans follow Bill Richardson’s advice to take no action in response to the South Korean training, but we could be heading into a real crisis.




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  5. What if at this point the regime is finally realizing that they will meet their end soon and it will be violent. Maybe there a factions developing in Pyongyang. Maybe the old guard is unwilling to bend to the idea of a kid who just learned how to piss in the pot becoming their next furor. If the regime is know faced with both external and internal situations, they may go for broke and lash out, taking as many domestic and foreign lives as they can before dying.




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  6. I am actually visiting South Korea for my first time right now. The other day here in Jeonju there were air raid drills, which were pretty surreal to see. For a moment I thought that something bad was going down when I saw people running into buildings while fighter jets flew overhead.

    Sorry for this rant – but on a side note I can’t help but think most korean men my age are completely and utterly feminized.




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  7. Mike, so how do you like Korea? I love the place myself. There was a time when they did those drills on the 15th of every month, so most Koreans are used to them.

    I just returned from Korea this past Monday and was telling my wife (who is Korean) that every time I go to Korea, it seems that the young men are becoming more and more feminized. Last week I was at a Hair Solon near our office in Yong-In with a couple of my co-workers as we were all getting our hair cut. While waiting, a group of young males came in and they proceeded to go through one of the hair-style books choosing the styles they wanted. What was strange was that they were only choosing styles out of the book for women styles and not male styles. Once they chose the styles they wanted, they then went through the various colors they wanted, etc. I was quite amazed and needless to say, the guys that were with me, who are older Korean males, were disgusted. Both of them have daughters and they told me that nowadays in Korea, it’s better to have daughters than have sons. You would have never heard that 20 years ago.




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  8. Thomas, I like Korea very much. I find the country exciting. Lots of tasty foods (I’ll eat anything). The street environment is much different than in America or even Europe. Everything seems jam packed. I think I’m the only one in the country who wears a seatbelt! I have many stories to tell my friends back home!

    But like you mentioned, I’m very surprised at Korean men and how they look. Honestly, I feel a bit disgusted. You mention haircuts, and it’s something I’ve also noticed. In my entire visit I’ve seen 2 men of my age (23) with geometric haircuts. I’m all about looking good & sharp, but this is just ridiculous. Everywhere I go I see men with neon green shoes, pink lace-ups, skin tight jeans, pierced ears, and feminine overdone hair. And this isn’t just a select few. This is by far the majority of young men in this country. I’ve traveled to about 12 countries and have never seen anything like it.

    I literally feel like a construction worker in my leather shoes, jeans, and North Face jacket. God help them if this is the future of Korea.




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  9. I’ve been in Korea for over three years now. My prediction is South Korea will go on with firing drills (a terrible idea) and nothing will happen. North Korea will not respond back, because they don’t want a war. The only way they would want war is if they knew the regime’s collapse was imminent.
    Joshua I respect your opinion, and I appreciate you saying you don’t believe a full scale war is coming to the peninsula. I know things seem a little tense, but the media has made it a little worse than it needs to be portrayed.
    We’ll find out tomorrow when they conduct the drills, I just don’t think anything is going to happen, but if it does I always have a bottle of water and some extra ramyun packs to get me through the first few days.
    Once again I truly believe nothing will happen, but I do think that the North Korean regime is struggling on the inside.




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