Crisis calls for tough balancing act.

So, both Washington and Seoul are convinced that based on overwhelming evidence a North Korean torpedo is responsible for the sinking of South Korean ship Cheonan. This has to be the toughest challenge yet to maintaining the pale imitation of stability in Northeast Asia.

The sinking of the said ship, which killed fourty-six South Korean sailors, was a serious act of agression that violated not just the Armistice but the United Nations Charter as well. Indeed, it should have been taken by South Korea as an act of war that required full military retaliation. The painful reality for Seoul, however, is that military option is a luxury it can ill afford. President Lee Myung-bak knows this, which is why his response to the crisis was very prudent: He did not immediately put the blame on the North but instead called for a level-headed investigation of the sinking, and when the investigation conclusively pointed to the North as the culprit, he ruled out military option and called for a cautious response.

This prudence is costing Lee, a staunch conservative known for his hawkish polices against North Korea that reversed the so-called Sunshine Doctrine of his liberal predecessors, a lot of political capital at home, where the atmosphere is heavily charged with mixed emotions of grief for the sailors and anger at Kim Jong-il. But he has no other choice. He knows that South Korea can’t go to war. North Korea might be very miserable as an economy, but it has a mighty military. Seoul’s ten million inhabitants are vulnerable not only to North Korea’s artillery but to its nuclear weaponry as well.

That is not to say, however, the the North can easily go to war. My take is that Kim Jong-il is aware that in the event of total war, a surgical airstrike by the enemy could render his nuclear deterrent useless and an overwhelming invasion of combined South Korean and American forces would spell his doom. And in such an event, China would most likely not defend him.

So, if Kim Jong-il wasn’t really fishing for war, why the heck did he torpedo that South Korean ship? Former South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young Kwan believes that the this provocation is profoundly related to three things: North Korea’s strategic and tactical boldness derived from its emergence as a de-facto nuclear state,  the factor of succession and the present economic malaise in North Korea. I think this is spot on.

As I see it, the provocation was done to enhance the image of the Kim dynasty among the ruling elite in North Korea, especially the military, in order to further cement the position of Kim Jong-un as succesor-apparent to his father; and also to divert the North Korean citizens’ attention from the worsening economic hardship brought about by mismanagement and international sanctions. As always, Kim Jong-il is pushing the limits of South Korea and the United States for his own domestic gains. As I have said on this blog before, the emergence of North Korea as a nuclear state has given it a considerable amount of leverage to gain concessions from the United States, South Korea and Japan. Kim has used this leverage successfuly against George W. Bush, who had largely caved in to Kim’s demands. These successes have probably made Kim believe that he can go as far as sinking a South Korean ship and get away with it; thinking that if a neo-con like Bush would not call his nuclear bluff, neither would a liberal like Obama. And if the United States would not call his nuclear bluff, neither would South Korea. It was clearly a gamble on Kim’s part and if he wins, heaven knows what kind of stunts he would do next.

The challenge therefore is to prevent further reckless provocations by Kim Jong-il by not letting him get away easily with this action while at the same time preventing full-scale war that would make the Korean peninsula, and perhaps along with it the stability of the whole of East Asia, explode. This would be a tough balancing act because the only way Kim would realize that he has crossed the limit is for South Korea and the United States to send a strong message that they are willing to go to war if necessary; but then doing so would risk irrational response from a dictator who feels being pushed against the wall.

This is where China can come in. It can play the role of a trusted voice of reason for North Korea, prodding the reclusive regime to realize the gravity of the situation but at the same time be wise enough not to escalate the tensions. This, too, would be a tough balancing act on Beijing’s part because in order for North Korea to realize the gravity of its actions, China must not water down any Security Council resolution that would impose sanctions on Pyongyang; but then doing so would risk Kim Jong-il being suspicious of China and feeling more isolated and thus susceptible to irrational judgements.

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6 comments

  1. Gil Santos

    i am sure there are rightwing members in the u.s. who are saying now is the time to stop playing games with north korea. allow the south koreans to retaliate with full force and back it up with full support in the united nations so there is legitimacy as it in the first unfinished korean war, which caused admiral turner joy to cry. with the norkoreans, there is no such thing as playing with them using kid gloves.

    this is precisely the time to have the south koreans retaliate with righteous and moral indignation. and decimate the kim il-sung clan and their communist command economy, which is deterimental to the region and the world anyway.

    if a war broke out on the northeast asian region over that torpedoing incident, only the allies will have the strength to wage a winning war. north korea is not going to recover from the world recession should there be a war in that area. in f act, it will benefit the allies’ econonomies because war manufacturing will go on, the multiplication/recovery of the euro and the dollar, and the yuan and yen too; (so will our peso) be hastened. jobs will also increase and poverty will somehow precisely be deminished. and after the war is won by the allies, the south korean takeover of the peninsula will be complete.

    remember how the u.s. and allies’ economies boomed immediately after the first and second world wars? the philippines and asean can contribute to the war effort by blockading oil shiipments to north korea in the malacca strait and philippine sea. that way we can also increase our demands for naval and air force support supplies from the u.s. . asean can apply pressure on russia and china to stop treating north korea like a spoiled brat.

    we will be selling fresh food (vegetables and fish and fruits) to the u.s. military. it will tremendously help our economy, and at the same while the war is going on, the filipinos can concentrate on training quality manpower to the south koreas, preparatory to the war’s end. remember the north koreans has been treated softly by the obama administration because this sitting american president does not want to follow the republicans warmonger footsteps. actually a soft handling of the north korean problem is worse for the philippines because we are relegated to the secondary background.

    of course there will be collateral damage. but all wars have that. the filipinos just have to extra carefull not to be the collateral victims of the war.

    war over the north korean area will also detract the world attention–even temporarily–from the mideast problems. it will ease up the hamas/hezbolah pressure on israel too.

    so the final question is: does obama have the balls to do it. he is going to have more problems with his domestic affairs if continues on his present course of action.

    • RB Osorio

      Sir Gil,

      I could not agree with you more. I think this is a golden opportunity to rid the world of one annoying state.

    • thenutbox

      Sir Gil,

      Your very-nuanced arguments for war are very compelling. But I think war and eventual fall of the North Korean regime would be disastrous for South Korea. Ever since the economy recovered after it collapsed in 1997, South Korea has been down in debt, its local industries being taken over by foreign capital, its economy dependent on foreign investment and its resources stretched.

      Rebuilding North Korean economy would require massive infrastructural spending that cost billions of dollars and private investments, which even in South Korea is very scarce. Further, massive influx to the South of economic refugees would surely overwhelm Seoul, depressing wages and property prices. The East and West German model is clearly not applicable, since the disparity between the North and South Korea is too vast.

      And of course, as president, Lee cannot not think about the collateral damage. Seoul is located dangerously close to the border and is thus vulnerable to North Korean artillery. Although a surgical airstrike would disable the North’s nuclear arsenal, there is still the risk of rogue elements in the North would send nukes to Seoul even before an airstrike is done. Further, the risk of nuclear materials and know-how making its way to the black market and, heaven forbid, the hands of terrorists in the event of the fall of the Pyongyang regime, must also be considered.

      • Gil Santos

        i did think of comparing the east-west german reunification costs with north-south korea’s. it definitely will be costlier now to rehabilitate a razed korean peninsula.

        but the decision to wage war or maintain the status quo –with the u.s. and south korea cowed by the north’s saber-rattling kim il-jung–is not mine nor yours. south korea and the u.s. and japan will allow the north koreans to PUSH it and fire the first shot. that is the only way the war can be justified and supported by the international community. but i don’t think north korea will. it will just keep more of those torpedoing incidents up. next will probably will be sniper killing a south korean in the 38th parallel “because he crossed into north korean territory to spy.”

        let’s face it: the north koreans know that u.s., the chinese, the russians and the japanese are trying to recover from the economic meltdown and will NOT risk a shooting war in the peninsula now–maybe, we do not really know. pyongyang better watch out if obama loses his reelection bid–and if the current trend continues unabated, he may– to the republican candidate, whoever that maybe.

        so in all probability, there will be no shooting war between seoul and pyongyang in the next three years. but remember the rightwing fanatics in the u.s. always believe war brings the oompah to their war materiel industry–world wars one and two proved that

    • dave

      Sir Gil,

      I agree with you on Obama’s–and the world’s– dovish tendencies. But the North Koreans have fired the first shot already (and you know all too well that this isn’t the first time they did it). To that I can I simply say, enough is enough.

  2. Pingback: China plays a dangerous game. « The Nutbox

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