Gates: Roh Moo Hyun was “anti-American” and “a little crazy,” and Lee Myung Bak wanted to bomb the crap out of Kim Jong Il.

This must be the most controversial understatement of the year, so far:

Reading a new memoir by former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, South Koreans may be quite surprised by his characterization of the country’s late President Roh Moo-hyun as “a little crazy.”

I estimate that approximately 63.8% of them won’t be in complete shock about that.

Gates recalls a November 2007 meeting in Seoul with the liberal-minded president, whose diplomatic and security policy is still being debated. He calls Roh “anti-American and probably a little crazy.”

Roh was quoted as telling Gates that “the biggest security threats in Asia were the United States and Japan.” [Yonhap]

He said that to the U.S. SecDef’s face, and the SecDef thinks he’s a little crazy? If anything, Gates was too kind. I’m tempted to make the case that Roh’s policies were detached from reality, but I did enough of that when Roh was alive, and besides which, there’s someone willing to argue that about every politician.

Instead, evaluate Gates’s description on its literal, medical merits. If you must, pick some less pejorative adjective, like “unbalanced.” A retrospective examination of Roh’s public statements while in office, which clearly foretold his cause of death, could have been grounds to commit him to an institution for his own safety. Not only did Roh seem to lack the will to govern, I often sensed (correctly, as it turned out) that his suicidal ideations didn’t have an exclusively political character.

I worried more that Roh was projecting those ideations onto his entire country.

Gates also confirms that Lee Myung Bak had intended to carry out a “disproportional” response using “both aircraft and artillery” after North Korea’s attacks of 2010, but that the Obama Administration forced Lee to call off the strikes.

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North Korea’s cash-for-summit demands put 2010 attacks in a new light

WERE THE 2010 ATTACKS North Korea’s way of making good on extortion?  Stephan Haggard, not widely know for his hard-line views, cites an article in the Chosun Ilbo revealing that Kim Jong Il wanted a summit with Lee Myung Bak, but at a price.

The sticking point was money. How much? According to the Chosun Ilbo, $500-600 million in rice and fertilizer aid, which had effectively been cut from the first of the year, and perhaps some cash too; that was about the price that Kim Dae Jung paid for the first summit. Negotiations continued through November at Kaesong, when the North Korean delegation even presented a draft summit declaration including a resumption of aid.  [Stephan Haggard, Witness to Transformation]

The Chosun Ilbo story adds this important piece of evidence:

In January 2010, after the secret contacts ended and North Korea realized that it was impossible to extract any aid from Seoul, it vowed to launch a “holy retaliatory war” against the South and fired multiple artillery rounds at the Northern Limit Line, a de facto maritime border on the West Sea.  [Chosun Ilbo]

Haggard makes a compelling (if circumstantial) argument that the attacks were meant to demonstrate that North Korea’s extortion should be taken seriously. We now know that two months after Lee refused to pay up, North Korea sank the Cheonan.

Wondering if I could make this case a bit less circumstantial, I decided to consult my archives and see what else North Korea said and did in the months between Lee’s refusal to pay and the Cheonan attack. I didn’t find what I expected.  Although there were certainly some menacing acts and words by North Korea, the threats were nowhere near as extravagant or as frequent as those issued in early 2009, after President Lee cut off aid, and as President Obama warmed up his chair.  What’s interesting, however, is that in early 2010, North Korea was facing a severe popular backlash against The Great Confiscation.

In November, of course, North Korea followed up with the Yeonpyeong attack.

Let me take Haggard’s point a step further:  if he’s correct in his inference, this course of conduct would be a good fit for the legal definition of “international terrorism.”  Some commenters have suggested that the 2010 attacks — particularly the Cheonan attack — are not a basis (not that another is needed) to re-list North Korea as a state sponsor of terrorism, but fresh evidence of a motive to extort merits reconsideration. The key element is that the violent act must have been intended to influence South Korean government policy, and some of North Korea’s statements from 2009 provide additional evidence of North Korea’s intent.  The evidence is circumstantial, but somewhere in North Korea are people with direct evidence, and one of them is probably thinking about defecting.

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The Richardson Effect

After a weather-related delay, South Korea says it is determined to continue with live-fire exercises in the Yellow Sea islands.

“The planned firing drill is part of the usual exercises conducted by our troops based on Yeonpyeong Island. The drill can be justifiable, as it will occur within our territorial waters,” said the JCS official. “We won’t take into consideration North Korean threats and diplomatic situations before holding the live-fire drill. If weather permits, it will be held as scheduled.”

The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Ramstad accurately describes what is really at stake here:

The test will take place on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, which North Korean forces shelled last month in what appears to be an effort to effectively redefine border territory in the Yellow Sea off the countries’ west coast. The shelling killed four South Koreans, two of them civilians. With the test, South Korea is walking a tightrope by trying to defend waters it has controlled since the Korean War of the 1950s in a way that doesn’t escalate into more fighting, which would threaten the safety of its 50 million people and the vibrancy of its economy, the world’s 15th-biggest.

In a move that’s certain to resolve absolutely nothing whatsoever, the U.N. Security Council is holding “emergency closed-door consultations.” North Korea, which was removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism on October 11, 2008, is also threatening the United States:

In a statement, North Korea’s foreign ministry spokesman said: “We will be sure to settle scores with the U.S. for the extreme situation on the Korean peninsula. Our military does not speak empty words.”

See also:

Uriminzokkiri, the communist state’s official Web site, also said in a commentary that war on the Korean Peninsula is only a matter of time, stoking already high tensions after the North shelled a western South Korean island on Nov. 23 and killed four people. “If war breaks out, it will lead to nuclear warfare and not be limited to the Korean Peninsula,” it said.

It is also calling about 20 American military personnel who will participate in the exercises “human shields.”

I think it should be obvious whose fault all of this is: Bill Richardson! But to be completely serious, his visit shows no evidence of accomplishing the stated objective of reducing tensions. If anything, Richardson has given the North Koreans a louder media megaphone for its threats and encouraged its extortionate bombast. He also reminds us why we call him “Kim Jong Bill”:

“I hope that the U.N. Security Council will pass a strong resolution calling for self-restraint from all sides in order to seek peaceful means to resolve this dispute,” the statement read. “A U.N. resolution could provide cover for all sides that prevents aggressive military action.”

Substantively, this is indistinguishable from what the ChiCom Foreign Ministry is saying, and just as dangerously illogical. Let’s begin with the fact that North Korea specifically ceded four Yellow Sea islands to South Korea in the 1953 Armistice Agreement. The relevant provision is found in Article II, Paragraph 13(b):

[A]ll the islands lying to the north and west of the provincial boundary line between HWANGHAE-DO and KYONGGI-DO shall be under the military control of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army and the Commander of the Chinese People’s volunteers, except the island groups of PAENGYONG-DO (37 58′ N, 124 40′ E), TAECHONG-DO (37 50′ N, 124 42′ E), SOCHONG-DO (37 46′ N, 124 46′ E), YONPYONG-DO (37 38′ N, 125 40′ E), and U-DO (37 36’N, 125 58′ E), which shall remain under the military control of the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command. All the island on the west coast of Korea lying south of the above-mentioned boundary line shall remain under the military control of the Commander-in-Chief, United Nations Command. (See Map 3).


The agreement did not delineate between the two de facto states’ territorial waters, so we default to international customary law, which provides that a nation’s territorial sea extends for 12 nautical miles (or 14 terrestrial miles, or 22 kilometers) from its coastline at low tide, or to the mid-point to a neighboring nation’s coastline, whichever is less. There are North Korean islets just 1.67 miles north of Yeonpyeong, so South Korea’s territorial sea excludes most of the waters north of the island, but the 14-mile radius from Yeonpyeong-Do overlaps with the 14-mile radius from the nearest South Korean island to the east, meaning that South Korea is entitled to describe the 22-mile wide stretch of water between them as its “territorial sea.” (The status of the waters between Yeonpyeong-Do and the outlying islands to the west is more complex, although the status of the islands and the waters within 14 miles of their coastlines is controlled by the same principles.) Clearly, then, the waters within 14 miles of Yeonpyeong-Do, except those to the North, are South Korean waters. There is no basis in international law for North Korea’s novel and unilateral claim of all of the surrounding waters, save the restrictive corridors to the south of them.


To reasonable minds, “restraint” has nothing to do with what you do on your own side of the border, as long as it poses no threat to your neighbor (otherwise, it’s called “sovereignty”). “Restraint” means not shelling your neighbor or sinking its warships. North Korea has done both of these things in the last seven months. South Korea is contemplating nothing of the kind. Its Joint Chiefs of Staff have stated that “the artillery guns on Yeonpyeong will be aimed southwest and away from North Korea for the drill.” It is North Korea that needs to show restraint. A nation that is under the threat of an armed attack has a right under Article 51 of the U.N. Charter to defend its territory, and restraint does not require the abandonment of that right, or of the preparedness it demands, or of the exercises that are essential to preparedness. These exercises are taking place inside South Korean territory, spurious North Korean claims notwithstanding.

North Korea counts on weak-minded emissaries like Bill Richardson to meet its utterly unreasonable demands half way, in the same way that disreputable merchants raise prices 50% in September to convince addle-brained customers that a 25% discount in December is a great deal. There isn’t much of a case to be made that his visit has reduced tensions with North Korea; in fact, one can argue that his grandstanding, ill-timed visit has had had exactly the opposite effect.

Update: It’s our big annual apocalypse aversion sale! Save big on all MIA remains! This week only, plutonium fuel rods (see manager for pricing)! Bring your U.N. inspectors to see what Sig Hecker has already seen, but mostly, bring lots of cash!

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Co-Author Distances Himself from Selig Harrison’s Vicarious Surrender Plan

You don’t see the New York Times print a correction like this one every day:

An Op-Ed article on Monday, about the sea boundary between North and South Korea, listed as an author John H. Cushman, a retired Army lieutenant general who commanded the United States-South Korean First Corps Group from 1976 to 1978. During the editing process, General Cushman asked that his name be removed as a co-author, but because of technical problems his request was not received before publication.

I can’t say I blame him. The correction will be an additional embarrassment for Selig Harrison, but it shouldn’t be a greater embarrassment than the op-ed itself.

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Lord Haw Haw of Pyongyang

Selig Harrison’s latest op-ed is such a bizarre departure, even by his own declining standards, that I had to read it for myself to really believe it. I have little to add to what Kushibo has already said about this, except to stare agape at Harrison’s use of language. He calls South Korea’s elected President Lee Myung Bak is a “hard-liner,” while hereditary tyrant Kim Jong Il is a “leader.” Deaths that North Korea caused with malice aforethought are attributable only to “cycles” that we are duty-bound to break through appeasement and concessions. He mischaracterizes the multinational investigation that found North Korea guilty of sinking the Cheonan as a “South Korean inquiry.”

I don’t think this leaves any real question open as to where Harrison’s sympathies lie. Selig Harrison just saw North Korea shell a South Korean fishing village, kill and maim civilians, and create Korea’s first population of war refugees since 1953 … and still, he not only constructs some elaborate justification for this, he has the chutzpah to demand that South Korea sign a peace treaty, but only after the United States unilaterally cedes its territory first. What else really needs to be said?

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China’s Very Bad Week

I’ll begin this post by offering my congratulations to Liu Xiabao, and extending my hope that he’ll soon collect his Nobel Peace Prize in person. In recent years, Nobel Committee has tarnished the prize with some poor choices, and it may be that a man of Liu’s courage and character lends the Nobel more credibility than the other way around. Even President Obama had to concede that Liu deserved the prize far more than he ever did. The last regime to prevent a laureate from collecting his prize was Nazi Germany.

For China, this has been a week of unforced errors of sufficient magnitude to change the minds of voters and the policies of nations. Its leaders are accustomed to meeting domestic dissent with arrogance and thuggery, global revulsion with arrogance and disdain, and foreign diplomats and generals with just plain arrogance, but all of this goes only so far. Suffering this thin-skinned hubris has become the price of “good relations” with China, at least as so-called China Hands prefer to define them. President Obama tried that approach, and to his credit, he’s realized that it doesn’t work. Which is why I’m pleased to report that Admiral Mike Mullen will not win the 2011 Confucius Peace Prize:

“The Chinese have enormous influence over the North, influence that no other nation on Earth enjoys,” Mullen said. “And yet, despite a shared interest in reducing tensions, they appear unwilling to use it. Even tacit approval of Pyongyang’s brazenness leaves all their neighbors asking, ‘What will be next?’ ” [Washington Post, Chico Harlan]

See also here and here:

“I do not believe we should continue to reward that behavior with bargaining or new incentives,” Mullen said. “China has unique influence. Therefore, they bear unique responsibility.” [Yonhap]

… and here:

“Beijing’s call for consultations will not be a substitute for action,” Mullen said, echoing similar statements from other U.S. officials this week. “And I do not believe we should continue to reward North Korea’s provocative and destabilizing behavior with bargaining or new incentives.

Mullen recounted that in the past year, North Korean attacks on the South also killed 46 sailors in the sinking of the naval ship Cheonan, in addition to Pyongyang’s public revelations of advancements in its ability to produce new nuclear weapons. “The ante’s going up,” Mullen said. “And I think the stakes are going up. [Stars and Stripes, Kevin Baron]

I especially liked this one:

“Northeast Asia is today more volatile than it has been in much of the last 50 years,” Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said. “Much of that volatility is owed to the reckless behaviour of the North Korean regime, enabled by their friends in China.” [AFP]

That’s all nice, and yet the comments of a high-level official Chinese official in North Korea reflect nothing more than more support for the North:

China’s most senior foreign policymaker Dai Bingguo visited Pyongyang as pressure intensifies on Beijing to rein in its unruly ally, after North Korea’s deadly shelling of a South Korean island inflamed tensions on the peninsula.

“The two sides reached consensus on bilateral relations and the situation on the Korean peninsula after candid and in-depth talks,” said a brief report from China’s Xinhua news agency, datelined Pyongyang. [AFP]

This is an astonishing insensitivity, a deliberate indifference to the desire of the United States, Japan, and South Korea to prevent another Korean War. Having concluded that China isn’t willing to help, those nations have wisely opted to talk outside of its presence, hopefully with a mind to closer military ties. Bringing Japan and South Korea together is a big change, and it’s not a change in China’s favor. Under Roh Moo Hyun, South Korea even tried to combine military dependence on America with neutrality between the United States and China. Today, the incompetence of Chinese diplomacy has bungled its relationship with South Korea, a country of far greater economic importance than North Korea:

The South Korean government is also looking for Beijing to take a more active role in curbing North Korean behavior. On Nov. 27, Chinese state councilor Dai Bingguo, a high-ranking foreign affairs official, made an unexpected trip to Seoul, informing the South Korean government only at the last minute of his desire to meet with President Lee Myung-bak.

“The visit was a disaster,” said a Western diplomat in Seoul, who asked not to be quoted by name because of diplomatic sensitivity. “They told them on a Saturday afternoon, ‘I’m going to be there in 15 minutes and by the way I’d like to meet with the president tonight.’ And then there was no significant message, just the same tired old claptrap.”

L. Gordon Flake, a Korea specialist with the Mansfield Foundation, said there is no expectation that Beijing should cut off relations with the ally for which it sent 3 million soldiers to fight during the Korean War. But he argues that Chinese backing for North Korean adventurism should not be unconditional.

“It is not just that China is turning a blind eye to what North Korea is doing, they are enabling North Korea,” Flake said. “China’s overt support for North Korea is blunting the effectiveness of diplomatic measures to curb their behavior.” [L.A. Times, Barbara Demick]

South Korea’s tone toward North Korea has changed beyond all recognition. The indulgence of the Sunshine Era is gone. Its new Defense Minister has now threatened to bomb North Korea so many times, and in language that sounds so, well, North Korean, that I’m almost starting to actually believe him:

“Fellow soldiers, as JCS chairman, I will completely crush the enemy with combined forces in coordination with the United States,” Gen. Han Min-koo, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), told the marines stationed on Yeonpyeong island, according to a statement released by the JCS. [Yonhap]

South Korea will swiftly and strongly respond with force until North Korea surrenders if the communist state launches another assault, the South’s new defence minister said. [….]

“Our enemies will keep trying to attack our weak spots and plot new forms of provocation. We must make them realise how steep a price they would have to pay for their provocations.” On Friday, the new defence minister said South Korea would hit back with air strikes at the North and “punish the attacker thoroughly” should the regime attack the South again. [AFP]

Why am I reminded of the first few minutes of this? (Some rough language here.)

Note that Mullen’s comments suggest that if there’s a response, it will be the South dropping the bombs and the Americans hanging back … and that’s good:

Asked about South Korea’s vows of using fighter jets to bomb North Korea in case of a future attack, Mullen replied, “South Korea is a sovereign nation that has every right to protect its people in order to effectively carry out that responsibility.”

South Korea “also has the right to choose the method which they respond,” Mullen said. [Yonhap]

A very important point to remember here is that North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong both happened around a key lifeline of South Korean commerce. Much of the shipping traffic to the Port of Incheon sails through the waters nearby, and most of its air traffic passes close to North Korea on its way to Incheon International Airport, or in the case of domestic flights, to Kimpo Airport. The South Koreans are right that their vital interests are at stake. I’d just rather they found other, smarter, asymmetric ways to strike at the heart of the North Korean problem.

For China, however, these policy shifts are big, and they could be important setbacks for its campaign to become Asia’s dominant power, and a recognized world power. For all the talk of China’s smooth realpolitik and gift for taking the long view, its recent behavior certainly has been emotional, unsteady, and short-sighted.

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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.

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Huzzah, I’m finally a moderate!

Not being a frequent reader of Foreign Policy, I don’t know much about the leanings of the particular bloggers there, although most would call that publication a stalwart of the “realist” view that had so recently become fashionable in Washington, before Al Qaeda in Iraq was squeezed down to a small nub of its former self, and before it became evident that North Korea, Iran, and China weren’t prospective negotiating partners after all. This week, we read one FP contributor calling for us to give up on the six-party talks, and another, Will Inboden, coming to the realization that we need leverage against North Korea to have any prospect of productive negotiations:

In the case of North Korea, the lead officials in the Obama administration realize that they have little leverage, in part as a result of the concessions made in the last two years of the Bush administration (such as removal of the DPRK from the state sponsor of terror list, and lifting of the Banco Delta Asia sanction along with returning Kim Jong Il’s $25 million of ill-gotten gains) that failed to secure a meaningful improvement in North Korea’s behavior. Refusing to negotiate from the current posture is a good starting point and helps turn North Korea’s (possible) desire for talks into a source of some small leverage. To gain more leverage, reimposing the financial market sanctions on the private accounts of the regime’s leaders would help, as would revisiting the state sponsor of terrorism list. Equally important will be exploring ways to change China’s cost/benefit calculation for its support of the DPRK. Perhaps after these kinds of steps are taken, it will be time to talk again.

I knew that if I waited long enough I could be a moderate, too! The consensus, it seems, has washed right past the self-professed Militant Wing of the Korea blogosphere, and we are all neocons again. I don’t mean to pick on these gentlemen, by the way, for their delayed arrival at the idea that negotiation alone is no way to deal with people like the North Koreans. Words like these from Inboden are especially welcome in wresting this debate from the shrill voices who dominated it for too long:

Let me be clear — I support the White House on this aspect of their North Korea policy. But I also think this might be a good occasion for reflection by commentators on all sides, myself included. It seems that the same voices that so indignantly condemned the Bush administration for its occasional refusal to engage in unconditional negotiations with unsavory regimes (such as Iran) now fall silent when the Obama administration does the same thing. Perhaps this is another example of what Ross Douthat perceptively described earlier this week as the “partisan mind” at work.

It is also a reminder to partisans and observers on all sides to resist caricaturing each other’s positions. I hope this latest impasse with North Korea at least helps elevate the policy debate beyond the hackneyed and simplistic “negotiate or not” rut. As any serious policymaker knows, in practice negotiations are one tool in the policy arsenal.

I’ve been as guilty as caricaturing as anyone. It’s fun, and some people just insist on making caricatures of themselves. But to expand on what I said here, I’ve never been a fan of Americans who blame each other for Kim Jong Il’s outrages (here’s a particularly discredited example). I believe those Americans vastly overestimate our influence over Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Il’s perceptions of President Obama or Lee Myung Bak may or may not have played a role in his recent decisions, but it’s more likely that once he correctly dismissed our long-lost capacity to deter him, he made his own decisions for domestic reasons. Or, maybe because he’s just not all there anymore.

Actually, I think the administration is playing the talks issue exactly right — refusing to talk when North Korea makes war on its neighbors, but displaying some willingness to talk in the future should talks ever show real promise. I doubt that talks with North Korea will show any promise as long as the Kim Dynasty persists, but if the six-party talks become five-party talks, they might become a useful forum for pressuring China, and for doing the important diplomatic business of averting conflict over North Korea in the event of a sudden or “rolling” collapse of the regime’s authority.

China’s conduct is more rational (if malicious) to us, and more responsive to diplomatic and economic stimuli. In China’s case, there may be more that all of our recent presidents might have done to present an image of an America willing to attach consequences to China’s support for Kim Jong Il. For those Koreans that this regime hasn’t yet killed, there is still time for America to learn that.

Meanwhile, it’s heartening to see conservatives again taking up the idea that (lacking real military or diplomatic options) we should try to undermine the regime from within. Michael Gerson has been particularly persist about this:

There is, however, a third possible outcome that has not been considered seriously enough – an option other than possible war or strategic humiliation. South Korea, America and Japan, employing their technology and vast wealth, could attempt to undermine the North Korean regime from within. An aggressive, sustained campaign to break the North Korean information embargo, expose the barbarity and corruption of the regime to its own people, promote the work of dissidents and defectors, and encourage disloyalty among North Korean elites may or may not work. But the alternatives are increasingly unattractive.

Hat tip to Theresa.

Update: A better-informed reader tells me that I’ve quoted the more conservative “Shadow Government” blog, as opposed to FP’s “The Cable,” which represents a view I’d tend to associate with that publication. That certainly weakens my case that these posts prove that Washington is moving my way, although I do believe that that is the case, for many other reasons. The most important of those is Kim Jong Il’s behavior, but a close second is the Obama Administration’s admirable refusal to reward it. I hope that by now, they’re thinking hard about ways to deter it.

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I’ll bet China could stop North Korea from giving the Dalai Lama a visa!

The nation’s top military officer challenged China to respond forcefully to North Korea’s recent attacks on South Korea and rejected Beijing’s calls for a return to negotiations with Kim Jong Il’s regime.

“There is significant leverage [China] could apply to avoiding escalations and improving this troubling situation,” Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at a Washington think tank on Wednesday. “We need China to step up. [Stars and Stripes, Kevin Baron]

China is just about the only trading partner, investor, and aid provider Kim Jong Il still has, and it seriously expects us to believe that it doesn’t have enough influence to stop North Korea from shelling its neighbors, or for that matter, from shipping missile parts to Iran through the Beijing International Airport? Do you suppose China would be equally powerless if Kim Jong Il invited the Dalai Lama and Richard Gere over for a state dinner? Isn’t this the same China that had enough influence with South Korea to stop the Dalai Lama from getting a South Korean visa at least three times in the last decade? This was especially rich:

By allowing the Dalai Lama to visit the country, South Korea also risks losing China’s support in dismantling North Korea’s nuclear arms program and in bringing Korean War era defectors home.

Yeah, gosh knows we’d never have disarmed North Korea or gotten it to send those POW’s home at last without China’s help! Oh, right.

Here’s an interesting thought experiment for you. Maybe Lee Myung Bak should invite the Dalai Lama and the President of Taiwan the Republic of China to come and do some land shopping for the future sites of their interest sections in Seoul. Then watch the laissez-faire, stand-offish ChiCom fireworks commence!

Hat tip to a reader.

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It’s (long past) time to close Kaesong.

So a week after the shelling of Yeonpyeong, the Washington Post leads me to believe that a lot of South Koreans who had been inclined to overlook previous North Korean outrages are really outraged this time. The Post’s correspondent thinks that the South’s infamous generation gap as to perceptions about North Korea has closed significantly in the last week. That’s good if it lasts, and if it translates into a policy that puts us on the path to strangling and subverting the regime itself. More here, at the Joongang Ilbo, which notes the rising anger at China on the Korean Street.

Far be it for me to defend China’s conduct here, but that criticism doesn’t really pass the laugh test, coming as it does from a country that still pours millions of dollars into Kim Jong Il’s bank accounts through the Kaesong Industrial Park. All of the reasons that justified the Kaesong experiment have been refuted by events. It failed to attract significant foreign investment, it’s not producing much for export, the labor costs keep rising, the North keeps meddling, and it hasn’t made North Korea play nice. The experiment has failed.

So why keep it open, aside from the fear that the North will take hostages, or the fact that it might have been politically unpopular at one time? The South Koreans have told me they’re afraid of putting the investors out of business, to which I say Kaesong was always a risky investment. Ordinarily, businesses have to evaluate and accept risks. In the case of Kaesong, those businesses always required government subsidies to break even. Why not give those investors a modest bailout package, thank them for playing, and tell them to go back and compete in the global economy? You can criticize China for propping up North Korea all you want, but your words will fall flat as long as you’re paying for the shells than land in your own damn country.

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Doug Bandow Still Wants USFK Out

You’d think that the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong should have a lot of people questioning what deterrent value American ground forces really add in South Korea now, in light of the risk of having them within North Korean artillery range, and the great expense to American taxpayers. So amid the questions about how to respond — and the bad decisions of former presidents have brought us to point where we don’t really have many ways to respond — Doug Bandow reminds us to ask why American soldiers are in South Korea at all.

My view may not be quite as extreme as Bandow’s. I can see reasons to keep an Air Force and Navy presence there, because those provide us with stand-off power-projection capabilities and secure the other end of a logistical pipeline, should we decide to intervene on our own terms. I certainly don’t agree with Bandow that South Korea’s dependence on us is more shocking than North Korea’s many atrocities, or China’s abetting of those. South Korea lets America subsidize its defense for the not-at-all-shocking reasons that it saves South Korea money, and because the Pentagon is willing to pay. But Bandow is correct that South Korea can and should bear the cost of conventional deterrence. Each new North Korean outrage makes it more indefensible that South Korean money is instead going to Kim Jong Il’s regime, through such failed experiments as the Kaesong Industrial Park. What Bandow doesn’t say and may not know is that every Friday night in Hongdae is a disaster-in-waiting for our political position there, the potential trigger for a Chung Dong-Young presidency (you say it can’t happen?). Such a development would do far more harm to South Korea’s freedom and security than the redeployment of the Army from South Korea.

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National Review nails it.

When North Korea acts up, you tend to see a great deal of commentary from — sorry — ill-informed people who are assigned to write about the subject. That’s why it’s refreshing to see things like this National Review editorial, which avoids the partisan temptation to blame North Korea’s behavior on an American President of the opposite party:

Some conservatives have argued that the Yeonpyeong attack was a direct response to U.S. “weakness. In fact, the Obama administration has been relatively tough on Pyongyang — much tougher than the Bush administration was during its final two years, when economic sanctions were loosened and North Korea was removed from the State Department’s list of terror sponsors. Go back and read secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s remarks at the July 2009 ASEAN Regional Forum in Thailand. A hawkish former Bush official describes that speech as “the best statement on North Korea strategy in the past 20 years. The Obama team — led by Clinton, secretary of defense Robert Gates, and State Department Asia hand Kurt Campbell — has bolstered America’s alliance with South Korea and championed muscular sanctions aimed at squeezing Pyongyang’s finances. Just a few days before the Yeonpyeong attack, the U.S. Treasury Department froze the assets of Korea Daesong Bank and Korea Daesong General Trading Corporation, both of which have links to the North Korean government.

For years, of course, left-leaning commenters blamed President Bush for North Korea’s nuclear program, even accusing him of fabricating evidence of that non-existent uranium enrichment program. We now know the truth about that. The editorial calls for military restraint, and for tightening sanctions and returning North Korea to the list of state sponsors of terrorism, but acknowledges that these measures won’t topple the regime by themselves. It would have been perfect if had at least broached the discussion of catalyzing change.

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Shen Dingli is a man who really knows the value of a fish.

Shen Dingli has become my favorite poster child for showing just what a bunch of maleficent assholes run China today, and in the aftermath of the Yeonpyeong shelling, he does not disappoint:

Shen Dingli, a security expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, was more direct in laying the blame on Seoul. “South Korea provoked the Yeonpyeong conflict first,” he said. “The area where this incident happened is South Korean territory from a ‘South Korean perspective’. But it is a disputed area from the ‘North Korean perspective’. North Korea warned South Korea to stop the drills, but South Korea went ahead. And then the incident happened.

girl.JPG“It’s South Korean provocation and North Korean over-reaction. South Korea’s artillery killed fish. North Korean artillery killed civilians. If China should blame the party at fault, it should criticize both Koreas,” Shen said.

People, fish, same-same! I wonder if the stultified rags that Shen reads reported that the North Korean artillery almost hit an elementary school.

You remember Shen, of course. He’s the one who was flashing the green light just before North Korea’s first nuclear test. Remember that when you read Wikileaks cables, or characterizations of Wikileaks cables, reporting that Chinese officials say the North shouldn’t have nuclear weapons, or that this time North Korea went too far, or that one day at the end of a receding horizon, the Koreas should eventually reunify. Hell, I’m sure they say a lot of things to our diplomats. I’m sure they say a lot of things to North Korean diplomats, too. I’m willing to bet those are very different things. I’d also bet that they’re said by different people, who may even hold slightly different views. But as a barometer of China’s actual behavior — as opposed to its cocktail conversation or what its editorials may offer tea-leaf-readers abroad — you can’t do better than Shen Dingli.

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John McCain:I think it’s time we talked about regime change in North Korea, and I do not mean military action, but I do believe that this is a very unstable regime.”


Adm. Mike Mullen:
I am one who believes we shouldn’t be rewarding bad behavior here.” Until last week, I was hearing distinct signs that the State Department was losing patience with “strategic patience.” Now, all of the pressure — backed by a very conservative new House of Representatives that will soon come to town — is pushing in the direction of more sanctions. I’m even seeing new-found interest in subverting the regime within policy circles. I can’t quite measure how South Koreans are going to react to this, but the Washington reaction isn’t going to be what Kim Jong Il must have hoped for.


It’s only shocking because of the source, but here’s a condemnation of the shelling of Yeonpyeong and a good photo essay … from the Hankyoreh. No, really! Careful, guys. You might get purged for being reactionary splittists.


Could Japan impose even more sanctions on North Korea?


In addition to his attempt to justify the shelling of his own constituents, Incheon Mayor Song Young-Gil is now failing miserably at providing for his new refugee population. I’m still wrapping my head around this. For the first time since the end of the Korean War, South Korea has war refugees again.


A map of North Korea’s uranium program.

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Is South Korea Finally Ready to Cut North Korea Off?

kji-step.jpgThe New York Times, in a report bylined in Incheon, says that the Yeonpyeong attack has caused a significant shift in South Korean views about the North.

After years of backing food aid and other help for the North despite a series of provocations that included two nuclear tests, many South Koreans now say they feel betrayed and angry. “I think we should respond strongly toward North Korea for once instead of being dragged by them,” said Cho Jong-gu, 44, a salesman in Seoul. “This time, it wasn’t just the soldiers. The North mercilessly hurt the civilians.

That is not to say that he or other South Koreans will really push for a South Korean strike; people south of the border are well aware that the North could devastate Seoul with its weapons. But the sentiments reflect a change of mood in a country where people have willed themselves to believe that their brotherly ties to the North would override the ideological chasm between the impoverished Communist North and the thriving capitalist South.

The attack seemed to challenge one of the underlying assumptions of a decade of inter-Korean rapprochement, which had slowed but not stopped under President Lee Myung-bak: that two nations’ shared Koreanness trumped political differences, making a return to cold war-era hostilities not only undesirable but also impossible. “I never thought they would attack us people of the same race,” said Hong Jae-soon, 55, a homemaker who fled Yeonpyeong with most of the island’s other 1,350 residents after the attack.

If this report is accurate, it suggests that sympathy for North Korea may shift from being a relatively insignificant factor in a politician’s electability to a political liability. It may mean that Lee Myung Bak will have political cover to do what he should have done years ago and close Kaesong for good (Kaesong’s business model always depended on attracting foreign investment, and North Korea pretty much foreclosed any chance of that with some belligerent meddling starting in late 2008). It could also mean the end of inter-Korean food and fertilizer aid, which was never sufficiently monitored to prevent it from being diverted to the military and those inhabiting the top tier of the North’s political caste system. The end of South Korea’s remaining aid to the North would represent a very significant policy shift. It would also be, in my view, a more appropriate response than military action, something that feels better to call for in the abstract than after the next shells start falling. Until now, South Korean voters weren’t ready to cut up Kim Jong Il’s credit card. Has that changed?

I’m not so sure. First, and provided the North Koreans don’t do something else stupid first, it’s probably too early to tell how much of this anger will dissipate in the coming weeks (the Chosun Ilbo reports that the North may test fire one of its new medium range missiles next). Second, I still don’t see much polling data to back up an anecdotal report from a place that’s uncomfortably close to where the shells landed. This is where I need your help.

There are certainly a lot of interesting things I learn by living and listening in Washington, but one thing I really can’t assess from here is how much truth there is to reports like this. One of my big regrets is that my job and my family have made it difficult to spent much time in Korea since my DEROS date, which means that everything I read and hear about political attitudes in South Korea is based on my increasingly outdated view of an unusually fluid electorate. Just from reading the papers and watching the polls, I’d have thought that attitudes in the South had moderated and stabilized substantially, but then came Mad Cow, which caused me to question all of my conclusions and realize that many of the sentiments of 2002 still lay latent. I have the general sense that gradually, and notwithstanding the conspiracy theories, the reality of the Cheonan Incident has taken hold, and that the North’s pretty-much-undeniable atrocity at Yeonpyeong will buttress that conclusion and shift the consensus on North Korea away from “they wouldn’t” and toward “how could they?” But how much, and for how long?

Another general sense I have is that many South Koreans probably leaned toward viewing USFK as an unnecessary evil in 2002, but that most probably see us as a necessary evil now. Beyond this, there are still two political extremes that remain mostly static. And all of what I’ve just described is subject to dramatic shifts based on things whose significance might completely escape most Americans. But this is the guesswork of someone who doesn’t live in Korea anymore. Maybe you know better. If you do live in Korea, and especially if you’re a Korean speaker, I’d like to hear your assessment of the mood on the street right now.

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Funny how that works:
China doesn’t want to restrain North Korea from attacking South Korea, but hates it when the U.S. Navy shows up on its front door. The Wall Street Journal passes along a sampling of Chinese reactions to the shelling of Yeonpyeong. Well-connected people I’ve spoken to seem convinced that there’s a segment within Chinese academia and government that really has had it with North Korea, but I doubt China will ever restrain North Korea without being subjected to much more pressure than we’ve been willing to consider so far. The people who run China are enjoying North Korea’s shenanigans too much.


The Independent reports that North Korean workers in Russia have been recalled as North Korea “prepares for war.”

A mass exodus of North Korean workers from the Far East of Russia is under way, according to reports coming out of the region. As the two Koreas edged towards the brink of war this week, it appears that the workers in Russia have been called back to aid potential military operations.

Vladnews agency, based in Vladivostok, reported that North Korean workers had left the town of Nakhodka en masse shortly after the escalation of tension on the Korean peninsula earlier this week. “Traders have left the kiosks and markets, workers have abandoned building sites, and North Korean secret service employees working in the region have joined them and left,” the agency reported.

Well, maybe, though an equally if not more plausible reason is a recent spike in defections among those workers.


With all due respect to Lee Ha Won, I don’t think it follows that “getting serious” about North Korea policy necessary means having a full-time envoy to a country that isn’t prepared to negotiate seriously. Chris Hill was a full-time envoy. Look where that got us. I’d say that “getting serious” means giving the North Koreans and the Chinese reasons to finally take us seriously and negotiate in good faith for once.


Pejman Yousefzadeh saves me the trouble of fisking Jimmy Carter.


Somehow, this doesn’t really shock me: Roh and DJ ignored the evidence of North Korea’s uranium program.


I can certainly understand the sentiments of the ROK Marine Commandant: “We will pay back North Korea 100 times, 1,000 times for atrociously killing and wounding our soldiers, who were the pride of the Marines,” Marine Corps. commander Yoo Nak-jun said in an eulogy.” I never recommend f**king with the Marines.


OK, it’s not North Korea related — well, maybe not North Korea related — but this story about how how the Stuxnet Worm shut gummed up the Iranian nuclear program, destroyed sensitive equipment, and probably caused Iran to shoot some of its own scientists may be the most fascinating, scariest thing I’ve read all week.

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North Korea: Sorry We Shelled Your “Human Shields”

You have to admit that it was pretty diabolical of Lee Myung Bak to have planted those human shields in their own villages and homes years before he was even inaugurated. In fact, the two civilians who were actually killed were construction workers on the ROK Marine post, but the given the North’s shelling of civilian neighborhoods, it’s lucky there weren’t a lot more “human shields” killed:



The North really does have a special gift for adding insult to injury. Still, just try to fathom the reaction to this if there had been no North Korean shelling, and a single American shell had gone astray instead.

Separately, the North is also making veiled threats against the U.S. carrier battle group that’s now headed for the Yellow Sea:

“If the U.S. brings its carrier to the West Sea of Korea at last, no one can predict the ensuing consequences,” the report said, using the Korean name for the Yellow Sea.

You know, given what the North has shown itself to be capable recently, I wouldn’t dismiss this as an empty threat. I think the danger of a severe escalation is more grave than even most Washington insiders tend to believe. What if the North tried to torpedo one of our ships? Or actually did? Do you suppose we’re really prepared to respond with a conventional attack? I say this because I see the North’s recent behavior as indicative of economic and political desperation. It may mean, among other things, that Plan B is working, the harvest has failed again, and that the North Korean people detest Kim Jong Eun. Whoever is running North Korea today seems convinced that a limited conventional war is the only thing that can save their grip on power. Especially under these circumstances, I’m not a big believer in shows of conventional force as a response to an actual attack. They put U.S. forces at risk, but their deterrent and punitive effect is questionable. Instead, I prefer the direction President Lee is headed:

The South Korean government plans to retaliate with words as ammunition, believing a military strike would be frowned upon by the international community. Now-former Defense Minister Kim Tae-young said on Wednesday at a National Assembly hearing that “a psychological war is ongoing, and we will continue that war but I cannot detail how that will take place. The newly launched plan for propaganda will likely be in the form of fliers, which a government source said “are already printed.

The fliers will be flown into North Korean territory on giant balloons, a tactic that civilian groups have used in the past to send propaganda fliers, usually to tell North Koreans about life in South Korea and appeal to them to leave their country. “[North Korea] will have no idea whether it came from civil groups or the government,” a South Korean government official yesterday told JoongAng Ilbo.

Yeah, at least until it was reported in the Joongang Ilbo and attributed to a government source. This idea is a step up from putting big sign boards along the DMZ. It’s hard to say how many minds can be changed by leaflets, but it may well force a significant redeployment of North Korean army units to collect all of that subversive litter. As a tool of persuasion, however, it has far less potential than the idea of giving the North Korean people cheap international and domestic cell phone service. Let’s hope this is just a first step. Propaganda is never more effective than when it comes from someone you know and believe.

Update: The Joongang Ilbo provides this map of the locations shelled. I ask you, what military purpose could possibly have justified shelling a health center, an inn, or the “History Museum of Croaker?”


Update: Watch this CNN correspondent try to dramatize the “danger” of being caught between the riot police and a bunch of pissed-off right-wing ajjoshis. In most cases, South Korean protests are ritualistic street theater where the risk of injury is no greater than your average pillow fight. At times, however, people do show up with bamboo poles, iron pipes, rocks, and the occasional home-made flamethrower.

The head bands say, “Restore our honor.” Hat tip to a reader.

It’s still hard for me to gauge the general South Korean reaction to this. A large minority demands military escalation today, but their support would waver it if the North upped the ante again. In most places, the Silent Majority fears dramatic policy changes and the perception of government overreach. There is a radical minority of South Koreans, of course, who will excuse everything the North does. Some will grow up, and some won’t, but that has little to do with reality and everything to do with emotion. For most South Koreans, coming to grips with the pathology of North Korea will be a gradual process, and may take longer than the North’s descent into Götterdämmerung.

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Before We Start Bombing North Korea, Let’s Try Turning It into Afghanistan

I don’t know about you, but when North Korea decided to shell South Korean homes and kill South Korean civilians in South Korean territory, my balance of risks shifted. We’ve always known that if U.S. and South Korean forces attack North Korea, North Korea would respond by trying to kill as many American and South Korean civilians as possible. Estimates that this would result in hundreds of thousands of casualties are probably worst-case scenarios, but a toll of several thousand Koreans and several hundred Americans seems probable. The fact that North Korea has used thermobaric weapons against a civilian population is proof that they’re willing to use indiscriminate force, although it’s oddly comforting in another sense. I’d have expected “the poor man’s atom bomb” to cause far more casualties.

In the past, most of those who’ve called for strikes against North Korea sounded like people who’ve never lived in or particularly cared about South Korea, and who hadn’t thought through the likely consequences of things it felt good to call for. But now, there are thoughtful, well-considered arguments that a quick strike against North Korea’s artillery and missiles might actually be necessary to deter more provocations and save lives. This isn’t a view I’m prepared to support — in part because of the fear of civilian casualties on both sides, and also because I still question whether involvement in a North-South war really advances or protects America’s vital interests, especially when so few Americans correctly estimate just how ambivalent the South Korean people themselves are about the North’s aggression against them. Yet North Korea is emerging as one of the greatest threats to the security of the United States because of its proliferation potential. Every instrument of our global power has failed to suppress that threat so far, including military deterrence, interdiction and containment, and of course, decades of diplomacy.

Today, the idea of a lightning campaign of preemptive air strikes is no longer a view I’m ready to summarily dismiss, but it’s not an idea anyone should support without knowing the answers to a few questions that aren’t available without the right security clearance and a retrospectoscope.

Artillery emplacements in cliffs overlooking the inter-Korean maritime boundary, via the Chosun Ilbo

First, how quickly we could silence all 10,000 of those artillery emplacements? And how many of their missiles could we take out before they were launched? The experience of SCUD-hunting in Gulf War I doesn’t encourage me, and North Korea’s extensive system of tunnels would probably conceal many of those missiles for an eternity. Since North Korea probably would fire at least some of those missiles, how confident are we that the PAC-3 Patriot batteries will stop all of them? Is the answer “very?” Because they’ll probably carry chemical or biological warheads.

North Korean artillery emplacements

Would North Korea activate its substantial Fifth Column in the South, or its Special Forces, to carry out terrorist or WMD attacks? Would its air force launch suicidal air raids, using obsolete aircraft operating from underground hangars and runways, in a modern analogue to the kamikaze attacks that proved so effective in World War II? If we were successful in meeting each of these challenges, what about North Korea’s best cross-DMZ delivery systems — the tunnels? How are we ever going to know which blue Bongo truck came from the warehouse with the exit ramp?

Downtown Seoul

Given those risks, isn’t it still wiser to exhaust other alternatives first? Given that the North Korean regime wouldn’t last a year without Chinese money, have we really reached the limits of our capacity to pressure China to force the Kims’ disarmament and abdication? In addition to sending the carrier group, can we finally get serious about sanctioning the Chinese companies and banks that do business with North Korea? Opponents of sanctions have recently suggested that North Korea’s aggression means that sanctions have failed, something they curiously failed to conclude about two agreed frameworks during the two decades when they clearly did fail. I reach the opposite conclusion. North Korea’s willingness to take greater risks now may be a sign of its rising desperation to restore its extortionate relationship with South Korea and the United States.

Our diplomatic options against China aren’t exhausted, either. What if an unnamed, high-level U.S. diplomat were to tell David Sanger of the New York Times that the United States has decided to support the sovereign right of Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan to have nuclear weapons? Why couldn’t a senior Pentagon official convene a meeting of the defense ministers of Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore to discuss the creation of an integrated missile defense system, or even a regional defense alliance?

Finally, we have not even begun to discuss asymmetric military options. Even ten years ago, the North Korean people would not have been prepared to oppose their government, even if given some reasonable hope of success, but I believe that has changed. For anyone willing to consider the risk of a direct strike against North Korea’s military — and this includes President Lee Myung Bak, who speaks of it openly now — why is it too provocative to talk about training, equipping, and arming a few of those 20,000 North Korean refugees now living in the South to wreak chaos along the most remote and rugged parts of the borderlands between North Korea and China? Can anyone explain to me why it’s out of bounds for the United States and South Korea to arm a North Korean opposition, yet it’s not out of bounds for China arm the janjaweed? Or to blithely underwrite a regime that commits mass murder against its own people, exports nuclear technology to Syria, and which sinks the ships and shells the homes of its southern neighbor? Of course, building an insurgent infrastructure would take time, but if North Korea continues to escalate its provocations, it’s long past time to begin building the capacity to directly pressure the regime.

South Korean artillery on Yeonpyeong Island, via the Chosun Ilbo

Is there some way we can reduce North Korea as a threat to the South and to the United States without the messiness of OPLAN 5027, and without turning North Korea into the next Outer Koguryo Semi-Autonomous Zone? Why not first try giving the North Korean people the guns they’ll need to take care of that part on their own? Would places like Chongjin or Hamhung really be worse to live in if they were more like Mogadishu, Kandahar, or East Saint Louis (sorry)? And wouldn’t the threat of exactly that be a more effective way to get the cooperation of the Chinese government than simply continuing our groveling appeals to its beneficent nature?

I don’t suggest that this approach is completely free of the same risks, but it has the advantage of being more incremental. This makes it far more useful as a tool of diplomacy, should people finally decide they need to negotiate with us in good faith. It also presents less of a risk of escalation to full-scale war. Kim Jong Il doesn’t have long to live and doesn’t care if anyone else does either. When he sees a lot of bombs falling on the weapons he built and emplaced so painstakingly and at the cost of so many lives, he’ll conclude that OPLAN 5027 has been activated, and he’ll see his immediate choices as being to use those weapons or lose them. Far better that he face something that doesn’t look like Götterdämmerung to him. Better yet, the beginnings of civil unrest in his rear would force the North Korean army to divert some of its best infantry to the interior and the north of the country, where they’re less of a threat to Seoul. This might also upset the force structure that’s built into North Korea’s military doctrine, since mechanized forces can’t operate effectively without infantry to protect them. Until now, China has seen North Korea as a cost-free way to plague and pressure American presidens. Far better, too, that China should face the choice of unrest on its doorstep or intervening in North Korea to fight a demoralizing and costly war of occupation, rather than that America should face the same thing in a far more distant place.

Today, it looks like North Korea has launched a low-intensity conflict on its own terms, a conflict that continues to escalate as its provocations go unanswered and shielded by China. If we can no longer escape conflict on some level, let’s at least fight asymmetrically, play to the weaknesses of our enemies rather than their strengths, and spare as many American and Korean lives as we still can.

Update: Popular Mechanics has some great links on the subject raised in this post. I think the de-bunking of the idea that North Korea would flatten Seoul in 30 minutes is particularly valuable.

The casual, and largely unsupported references to Seoul’s potential flattening punctuates the notion that Kim Jong Il is holding a city hostage. It recasts a complex strategic vulnerability as a cartoon: an entire city facing a perpetual firing squad. It also ignores physical laws, and the realities of modern warfare.

Barring the use of nuclear weapons or large-scale bombing runs, destroying a city requires an extended campaign of shelling and demolition, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since WWII. When the Chechen capital of Grozny was all-but-destroyed by Russian forces in 1999, it was the result of months of artillery and missile bombardments, as well as air strikes. There’s no doubt that North Korea’s massive deployment of artillery, and potential deployment of roughly 300 ballistic missiles, could wreak havoc on Seoul and its population. What’s clear, however, is that a sudden barrage of shells and missiles would only mark the beginning of a battle for the city, not an apocalyptic fait accomplit.

The point about Grozny is an excellent one. I’d add that it took weeks of sustained and unimpeded aerial and artillery bombardment to drive Djokar Dudaev’s forces out of his “Presidential Palace,” the former Communist Party Headquarters. Even then, most of the building’s structure remained intact until the Russians demolished it. We tend to think of Dresden, Hamburg, Stalingrad, or Berlin when we think of what artillery does to cities, but those were actually the effects of sustained saturation bombing from the air, using in excess of 1,000 heavy bombers per raid, loaded with incendiary bombs that started firestorms in cities built of brick and wood. Today’s reinforced concrete structures would not suffer the same type of catastrophic damage when hit with artillery, particularly if counter-battery fire and air strikes limited the duration of the North Korean barrage.

But again, this isn’t to deny that a second Korean War would be a horror. It’s just that I’m more afraid of what North Korea’s chem, bio, and terrorist capabilities could do to Seoul than its artillery. If war does come, a lot of us are going to be in for quite a shock when we see how many South Koreans would actively assist the North Koreans. I tend to see both the threat and the best response in more asymmetric terms.

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