Skip to comments.Strategic Logic on the Korean Peninsula Headed Toward War
Posted on 12/08/2010 8:36:12 AM PST by jhpigott
Strategic Logic on the Korean Peninsula Headed Toward War
By Victor Cha, Senior Adviser and Korea Chair, CSIS
There is a real possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula. The cause is not a second North Korean invasion of the South like in June 1950, which was successfully deterred by U.S. and South Korean forces. The danger stems from two combustible trends: A North Korea which mistakenly believes it is invulnerable to retaliation due to its nascent nuclear capabilities, and a South Korea that feels increasingly compelled to react with military force to the string of ever more brash provocations like the artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island.
The shelling of Yeongpyeong had for South Korea much broader effects than the partial evacuation of its 1,600 residents. It forced a temporary closure of Incheon International Airport, the sprawling ultramodern hub of air traffic throughout Asia that stands only 122 km from the shelled island. The artillery flew only days after world leaders converged on Seoul for the G20 summit, undoubtedly causing world leaders to think twice about the next trip given the unpredictability of the North. These periodic crises undercut South Koreas future bids to host global mega events like the World Cup or the Winter Olympics.
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 Pyongyangs provocations are getting more deadly, and that Seouls 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.
To make matters worse, Pyongyang does not see that it is pushing Seoul to the edge. This is because it is under the false impression that its nascent nuclear capabilities make it invulnerable to counterattack. It is no coincidence that the artillery attack took place right after the North revealed its shiny new uranium-based nuclear program to the world. The constant references of late to the nuclear deterrent are not mere rhetoric. The North believes it is on a new strategic plane superior to the South and that the U.S. really is deterred.
This is a strategic logic on both sides of the DMZ that is headed toward war. The United States and China have no interest in seeing such an outcome. While China appears to be uninterested in answering U.S. entreaties to stop North Korean provocations, Beijing should do all it can to avert the next provocation by the North if it wants to avoid a major South Korean military response that could either ignite a war or collapse the brittle regime.
Pundits opine that a return to six-party nuclear talks or bilateral U.S.-North Korea negotiations about food, fuel, and security is what the North Koreans want. But having sat down with the North Koreans to negotiate exactly these things during the six-party talks under the George W. Bush administration, I can tell you that such enticements were a part of our negotiations just as they were a part of every U.S. negotiating package dating back to the Clinton and Bush senior administrations, and now the Obama administration. Past agreements, all broken by Pyongyang, have netted the regime some $30 billion in food, energy, and assistance. Kim could signal a return to talks through established bilateral diplomatic channels with the State Department, not by lobbing artillery. Obama knows that Pyongyang wants to extort external assistance for its starving economy through negotiations, but he also knows that Kim is not willing to give up the nuclear programs verifiably and irreversibly. On the contrary, the latest revelations about an enriched uranium path to nuclear capabilities evinces Kims intentions to make the North the worlds next de facto nuclear power. The existence of one finished uranium centrifuge facility, moreover, indicates deep and robust programs elsewhere in the country.
Diplomatic negotiations should be tried, but they will only be an interim step. Talks will only moderately and temporarily impede a runaway nuclear program. Before or after such negotiations, however, North Korean attacks like the artillery shelling of South Korean territory will continue.
So what should the U.S. do? Obamas military exercising with South Korea and Japan is the right first step. But there are two more steps. First, serious consideration should be given to augmenting U.S. troop levels in Korea. This is the ultimate symbol of the deterrence and will impose real costs on the North for its actions, who seek the removal of these forces.
Second, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan should seek a resolution from the UN authorizing the use of force in self-defense at the next North Korean provocation. China will oppose both measures, in which case it should stop North Koreas provocations. Third, the U.S. should enlist Russia to begin informal talks with North Korea about nuclear deterrence. The purpose of such talks would be to undercut any false notions Kim might have that a few nukes in the basement permit him to provoke recklessly. These are extreme measures but they befit the gravity of the situation.
Do it at local midnight so they can see the flashes, too.
They forgot that war is HELL...
Sooner or later the crap is going to hit the fan.I’m just surprised that the ROK allowed these Provocations to go as far as they did.
I don’t want to be a war monger, but why is it no thoughtful person will simply say, go to war and eliminate the threat?
It’s obvious to me NK’s nuclear therat is not the reason, SK has been deterred for decades by the threat against Seoul and the costs of reunification.
If you’re going to be paralyzed just admit it. Imagine when they are sure NK can nuke Seoul?
A good article but I don’t understand this part :
“...Second, the U.S., South Korea, and Japan should seek a resolution from the UN authorizing the use of force in self-defense at the next North Korean provocation. China will oppose both measures, in which case it should stop North Koreas provocations...”
SK doesn’t need a resolution to exercise the right of self-defense, all UN nations are entitled to that already. I think Japan’s constitution only allows for military action in self-defense of Japan and not other countries. Also, I don’t understand why China’s veto of a resolution like this would stop NK from doing anything?
” This is an article/blog that has had a lot of people going “o’ crud” this morning in policy circles. “
The last three paragraphs of the article are just chock-full of the same-ol’ diplomatic wishful thinking that got us to this place to begin with.....
Those who are praying for China and/or Russia to step in and save our bacon are clinging to a vanishingly thin reed....
NK’s have AA missiles. B52’s would not be able to live
in that environment.
The hell with that.
The reactions I’ve seen around the blogosphere to Cha’s article are a little disconcerting. Most all agree with his analysis of where this crisis is heading, but almost none of them agree on any of his recommendations, just like you guys.
His 2nd recommendation is non-sensical since the right to self defense is guaranteed within the UN charter, so no need to go that route, unless he is suggesting that by doing so may force China to veto or step up to reign in the NORKs.
Personally, I think a change in governance is needed in the North. The “kick the can down the road” game we have been playing for the last 50+ years is beginning to appear unsustainable. Problem is I don’t see how we can get from point A to point B without a very large and bloody mess on the Korean peninsula. It’s going to take a lot of imagination and luck to break the status quo and finally bring the Korean War to a formal end peacefully.
It’s going to require either the sudden deaths of the entire NK leadership or a truly astonishing preemptive strike on all the dug-in NK artillery trained on Seoul. Kill their AA and then carpet bomb the meridian old-school.
I would add a third option which might lead to peace without firing a shot:- the placement of enough anti-artillery lasers to protect Seoul from bombardment. However I doubt that there are enough of these on Earth to protect Seoul from what the NKs have lined up.
Talk to the Israelis about how they took the Golan Heights, and do that x 100
Even a soft resolution condemning NK agression, supported by China would be a resounding slap at NK.
Everyone wants reunification. NK leadership is in the most flux it has ever been in.
There is a sense that the time to force a regime change is now or within the next year.
I have no doubt that any further attack by NK will result in a total war against the NK military and its leadership.
A single JSOW dropped from a B-2 on Party HQ would send the same message at far lower cost, and you wouldn't risk the loss of the B-52's.
The NK air defenses are built around Vietnam-era aircraft and SAMs... good enough to knockdown Buffs.
I wouldn't want to hand any POW's to the North. We know how they treat prisoners.
Yea, I don’t think much of his first or 3rd recommendations either.
It’s not as if we don’t already have a sizeable land, air and sea prescence in and around South Korea and that hasn’t stopped Kim. Maybe we could push forward a larger air/sea force, but we are pretty strapped as far as active duty ground forces.
As far as getting the Russians involved - I tend to think they are more of the problem, not the solution.
BTW, High Speed Anti-Radiation Missles (HARM) kills targeting AA radar dead. Can't shoot down what you can't see.
Airborne Electronic warfare systems are also pretty good. Although I definitely don't know ANYTHING about 'em! I know nothing, NOTHING!
I rather like this suggestion by Joshua Stanton over at One Free Korea:
For anyone in the Pentagon who is reading this, let me helpfully offer that palaces would be ideal targets for several reasons. The first of these is that theyre big, blue and almost impossible to miss. Politically, theyre even more attractive. The evidence Ive seen suggests that Kim Jong Il is generally hated, and that Kim Jong Eun is universally despised. Most of their palaces are in rural areas that have been cleared of civilians. Id bet that the North Korean people would actually approve if they learn that KJI or KJUs fancy palaces were bombed, particularly by the South Koreans. The North Koreans cant even show video of the damaged palaces without highlighting the gross inequality of North Korean society and suffering an even greater propaganda backlash. Instead, we should use the occasion to show the world, including the North Korean people, how KJI and KJU live in splendor while everyone else lives in squalor. Finally, bombing palaces has the advantage of punishing the guilty instead of the innocent.
The danger stems from two combustible trends: A North Korea which mistakenly believes it is invulnerable to retaliation due to its nascent nuclear capabilities, and a South Korea that feels increasingly compelled to react with military force to the string of ever more brash provocations like the artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island.The author is half right.