OK, this is what has worried me about the North Korea situation

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.

  • RolyPoly

    1) NK already got OK from China to “play” from the way they are talking.

    2) NK will shoot one shell near Incheon or Seoul where no civilian lives.

    3) It will wait for SK response, even for one hour to one day. NK shelling resumes.

    4) SK will just sit. The US will just sit. No one wants to escalate this to a full blown war. No one.

    5) Finally, Jaebuls get together and match what Kim Jeongun wants. (1 billion per year?) More than 2/3 of this goes to China. NK stops shelling.

    6) Win-win-win. Peace! at a price.

  • qiranger

    It’s what I’ve been saying all along. When the next attack occurs, it will be met with a strong response. The UN/US/ROK have no choice. The people of Korea will demand it as well. Once that happens, who knows. I suspect we’ll find out what will really take place within a week after the exercises conclude.

  • Bob Bobbs

    1948 wasn’t so awesome, either:

  • creo69

    “The problem is, North Korea’s not crazy, ”

    Dates with Dennis Rodman last week? Ending the armistace this week? Hundreds of thousands starving while junior builds a rocket? You need a long vacation outside of South Korea and a dose of reality. They have gone to war once already. Koreans (North and South) are all crazy, and war is a much easier thing for them to swallow than letting go of their precious egos. Senior may have been skilled enough to play these games on a fine line without setting off a war. Junior will not be so fortunate.

  • monk_hughes

    Interested why you think this will occur. Numbers 1 and 5 especially.

  • felddog13

    @Roly Poly #1–all evidence is that China is NOT giving NK the “okay” to make an armed provocation. They would have nothing to gain by this. Whether or not China has given NK confidence to stir shit up though China’s long-term enabling is debatable. But remember– after Yeongpyeong-do, China actually cut off food and fuel deliveries for a few days.

  • felddog13

    All of this recent stuff is pure internal NK politics. The key question is the relationship between Kid Kim and the generals–is Kim trying to solidify his relationship with the military? Are the generals trying to justify their own relevance? Is internal dissent growing to the point where the regime feels a need to go as far as real-live-shooting incident to further justify a “military-first” austerity policy? This will all be answered in the next few weeks, I guess.

  • http://profiles.google.com/dcmusicfreak DC Musicfreak

    I’d like to see North Korea kicked out of the United Nations and all DPRK officials declared persona non grata in the civilized world, with varying rewards set on the heads of the top 52 leaders, and playing cards circulated accordingly. Saturate North Korea airwaves and skies with the most humiliating Korean-language satire about all 3 generations of the ruling Kim family. NK is rabid dog that needs to be euthanized.

  • asiapundits

    Kim Jong-Un is a puppet and nothing more. Does anyone actually believe that in a Confucian society, and at Kim’s age, that he would be anything else? If you want to look at where the power in North Korea lies, look at the military and the old guard that surround Kim. These are the dudes that have pulled off previous small scale attacks on South Korea in the past, with limited repercussions, and the ones that are horribly miscalculating the current situation. Kim Jong-Un has no say in this matter whatsoever. If you want change in North Korea, you’re going to have to wait until these geezers croak or go to war and kill them all. Kim couldn’t change how this is going to end, even if he wanted to.

  • Bruce Klingner

    Robert, Thanks for the hat tip. I read your blog every day.

    Last week both the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee had hearings on North Korea. What is interesting is that both (remember one is controlled by Democrats, the other by Republicans) are frustrated with the lack of progress/failure of the Obama Administration’s policy. Both houses of Congress are discussing additional legislation to push the administration into taking stronger measures against North Korea, including more forcefully using all of the laws, executive orders, etc. that it already has at its disposal but has been resistant to use.

  • stereo

    >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.

    What was the original Korean word for “exponentially” that she used in her speech?
    Actually, this could be an opportunity. South may start really thinking about reunification.

  • http://www.rjkoehler.com Robert Koehler

    Thanks for reading, sir. How you’d find the time nowadays, though, is beyond me—I imagine the phone calls for interviews and op-eds must be nonstop.

    About the Obama administration’s North Korea policy, though, I’ve got to be honest—I don’t think it’s been so bad. Sure, they haven’t actually stopped the North Koreans from doing anything, but at the same time, they haven’t rewarded North Korean’s bad behavior, either. That seems like progress to me.

  • hoju_saram
  • Hamilton

    There is no progress with North Korea.
    I’ve always felt that someone should sit each new US President down and tell them straight up “Mr. President, now is the time for your policy to fail on North Korea and the Middle East. It isn’t your fault, just the way it is.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=783315197 Shelton Bumgarner

    I, too, grow more and more worried about North Korea these days. But there doesn’t seem to be much we can do. Neither side wants war (and least I hope they don’t) and as you say it would only start because of miscalculation. I just want this crisis to be over so the people I care about in South Korea will be safe.

  • adeptitus

    Hmmm. Last I checked, when NK attacked Yeonpyeong Island, it resulted in an artilery duel between the 2 sides. So Mr. Klinger on Heritage Foundation’s payroll went to some newspaper outfit and decided to write that NK leaders might think the South wouldn’t shoot back?

    Your tax dollars at work, feeding a corrupt academia, providing education and welfare-handout jobs to so-called research fellows and whatever title they wish to grant themselves. Even after they graduate to working for private “think tanks”, your dollars continue to subsidize them through corporations that tax economic transactions and provide grants to the so called think tanks, and provide for its legions of employees who indulge in farcical sycophancy.

    Here’s the truth: none of us here know what will happen. People make biased predictions that confirms to their views, and sell it to those who support such views like snake oil. When you make 100 predictions and 1 comes true, that’s the one you put on your resume to make you look like an expert, or genius, or whatever self-flattery you wish to indulge in. The reader who buys the snake oil do so out of wishful thinking (positive or negative).

  • Horace Jeffery Hodges

    “corporations that tax economic transactions”

    Could you clarify this point?

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  • http://www.facebook.com/gojaejin Jeremy J. Goard

    If the short-term military crisis leads to the end of the North Korean holocaust, then aren’t we obligated to suck it up, accept some casualties, and do our part to bring about the better future? Many have done the same for us.

  • SalarymaninSeoul

    The North has now pretty much declared war on the ROk, the US and other allies (New Zealand???!). Why do we need to wait for them to move first? If they have stated that their missiles are nuclear armed and ready to launch at any time, then isn’t it time to simply beat them to the punch? Warn China that if within 3 days the North does not retract its threats that the ROK and USFK will launch a major pre-emptive strike on the North’s known artillery and missiles as well as centers of command, and that nukes will be used.