The sinking of a South Korean vessel, the Cheonan, has dominated the news here for weeks. Increasingly it looks like an external explosion caused the ship to break in two and sink rapidly. Suspicion is high that the only external force strong enough to sink a modern reinforced warship would have to a be a (presumably NK) mine or torpedo.
Predictably the conservative SK press has started the drumbeat for an aggressive response, including possible military action. President Lee of course is painted into a corner. A wholly unprovoked attack like this screams for blood, and the South Korean right is virulently anti-communist. If Lee does nothing, he’ll be hammered in the media and by his rivals within the governing party.
I sense a decisive moment building, akin to Austro-Hungary’s 1914 debate on how to respond to Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination, or Bush’s post-9/11 reckoning. Here is a moment rich and justified in the aggressive rhetoric so beloved by conservatives the world over; try to imagine how Fox News would respond if the ship had been American. This could easily slide into nationalist hysteria and escalation. 9/11 too raised America’s temperature and pushed the US government to aggressive action in the Middle East. Only a few years later did it become apparent how much the US overreacted. I fear the same here. As Andrei Lankov (one of the best NK experts – read him if you don’t) notes, Lee doesn’t really have much room to do anything against the North that is significantly punishing, yet won’t cause a NK escalatory response, and then a dangerous tit-for tat downward spiral. I think the Korean Foreign Ministry sees this too.
In brief, the problems with any military response are:
1. North Koreans will suffer the costs of any retaliation, not the KPA/KWP elite likely responsible for the attack.
2. NK is heavily ‘bunkered’ and hardened. Any military response would likely be from the air and would require multiple sorties. This means more chances for accidents, shootdowns, and other ‘kinetic’ interactions that could lead to a spiral of violence.
3. Realistically, the US would have to political approve of SK action; this is unlikely.
4. The North is already so deprived and impoverished, it is hard to find a juicy target that would both hurt but not lead the KPA to call for war. (This is what would happen if the nuclear sites were bombed, so scratch that idea.)
5. My friend Brian Myers has convinced me that NK is such a paranoid, ‘national-defense state,’ that any attack is likely to provoke an escalated armed response. The KPA derives it prestige and legitimacy from its ability to defend the country – indeed this built into the constitution now as as the “military-first” policy – so it would be existentially important for it to hit back.
Hence it is extremely likely that any SK strike would be immediately countered and escalated. This is not like Israeli airstrikes in Lebanon or Syria. The North will almost certainly pursue escalation dominance into a quickening and widening cycle of hits and counter-hits. This is not a game the South really wants to play, especially given Seoul’s extreme exposure to North Korean artillery. So swallowing its anger out of sheer fear of escalation is my prediction of SK’s response.
So what to do? How about going to China and telling them, ‘we will hold off on a response in the interest of stability, but you really need to get serious with the pressure. No more bail-outs and trips to Beijing for the Northern elite.’ China doesn’t want a tit-for-tat, degenerative North-South spiral anymore than anyone else. Perhaps the South can use this to really push the Chinese hard on finally cutting off NK.
To be sure, the road to Pyongyang doesn’t go through Beijing. North Korea coldly plays China for gain as much as it does the US, Japan, and South Korea. But I have always thought that if NK ever faced a truly united front of the other 5 parties of the Six Party Talks (China, US, SK, Japan and Russia), the DPRK might finally be cornered. In this way, the relevant Six Party game theory is the stag-hunt. If only the 5 can coordinate and not defect on each other (NK’s constant goal), the can catch the big stag – change in NK. Strategic restraint on the Cheonan sinking might be a way to convince China to finally stop defecting over North Korea.