The Heritage Foundation’s Bruce Klingner apparently talked with the Naeil Shinmun, telling them he was concerned that North Korea might misjudge (or who knows, maybe they’re right about this) that South Korea and/or the United States would never retaliate against the North following a small-scale attack. This, combined with pressure on the Park administration not to pull an LMB 2010, might accidentally set off a full-scale clash.
This is the thing I’m most afraid of. I’m pretty sure North Korea doesn’t want a full-scale war, mostly on account that the leadership knows it will lose. I’m also pretty certain South Korea and the United States don’t want a war. The problem is, North Korea’s not crazy, but they have found a modus operandi they think works for them. How many North Koreans died in retaliatory strikes following the seizure of the USS Pueblo, or the Ax Murder Incident, or the EC-121 shootdown incident, or the 1968 Blue House Raid, or the Cheonan sinking, or the Yeonpyeong shelling? How could fault them for believing that it would be more of the same if and when they launch another armed provocation? That President Lee Myung-bak complained that the United States kept him from properly retaliating after the Yeonpyeong shelling has probably reinforced North Korea’s thinking on this matter.
Of course, it’s very likely that the next North Korean provocation won’t be met with the standard South Korean response. Even though South Korea has been taking shit from the North Koreans pretty much continuously for the last 60 years (with the late 1960s being an especially bad period), there’s only so much Seoul can take. Park is under pressure to make sure the next time the North Koreans pull something they get their teeth kicked in, preferably with F-15Ks. This will put North Korea in a place it’s not used to being—forced to chose between licking its wounds or trying to get the last punch in. And that’s when things could spiral out of control.
UPDATE: Actually, it looks like the Naeil Sinmun was quoting from Klingner’s piece in the NYT, the scary part of which reads:
A nuclear attack on the United States or full-scale invasion of South Korea remains highly unlikely, however, as either would ensure North Korea’s destruction. But it is only a matter of time before the regime launches another tactical-level attack on the South.
There is now a greater risk of miscalculation and escalation, due to new leaders in both Koreas. Kim Jong-un lacks experience and may stumble across red lines that his predecessors would have known not to cross. Moreover, he may be emboldened by North Korea’s new nuclear muscle and the knowledge that neither Washington nor Seoul ever responded to previous attacks.
Newly inaugurated South Korean President Park Geun-hye criticized her country’s past passivity and vowed to hit back hard and “exponentially” in case of another attack. The danger is that even a low-level retaliation could escalate into an all-out conflict. As a U.S. general on the peninsula warned, “Before you start even a limited response, you better be prepared to go all-in.”
South Korea has recently warned that it would go after the attacking units, support units AND command units in the event of a North Korean provocation. Now, just because South Korea is threatening to do something doesn’t mean it actually will—see former Minister of Defense Kim Tae-young. On the other hand, just because they bluffed last time doesn’t mean they are now.
Oh, and just to show you how little things change with North Korea, here’s a post I wrote during the big drills in the West Sea in 2010.