So my prediction that the North Koreans would launch a test missile on the ‘Day of the Sun’ – that would be Kim Il Sung’s birthday for you imperialist running-dogs yet lacking in proper ideological orientation – was wrong. Hmm. The North Koreans sure are good at keeping us guessing. Maybe they’re dragging this thing out, because they’re enjoying the time in the limelight. My friend Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post, ‘North Korea’s gone viral,’ and they gotta be lovin’ it. When else do we listen to them otherwise? (Here’s a collection of some of the NK humor.)
I still think there will be a missile launch, but I remain pretty positive there won’t be much escalation. I sketched an escalation path a few days ago. But despite being the most likely possible path to a conflict, I still don’t think it is in fact likely. Some comments, both on that post and privately made some good further points why escalation is unlikely.
Kyle Mizokami (Japan Security Watch) observed that the Japanese are unlikely to fire unless the missile is coming right down on a Japanese city, which is effectively a NK declaration of war on Japan. Otherwise, he thinks the Japanese won’t fire, because they are afraid ballistic missile defense (BMD) might not work. They might miss. Dave Kang made a similar observation to me. No one really knows if US/Japanese BMD is effective in the field. It would be a pretty big embarrassment if it didn’t work, not to mentioned signally to NK that they could blackmail with even greater impunity. So we probably wouldn’t fire on the missile, even if it flew right over Japan – just because everyone is nervous it will work out about as well is it did in 1985 (video above).
Another commenter noted that even if BMD was successful, the North Koreans might just overlook that . There would be no need to actually tell the population. However, the non-military elements of the regime might starting questioning the ‘military-first’ policy and the military’s huge share of the budget if they did not respond. Also, information does seep into North Korea a lot more than it did in the past, so it’s possible regular North Koreans would learn that the missile was shot down. And that the former colonizer, Japan, specifically would be the party shooting it down could also be escalatory given the bad blood between Japan and the Koreas. So that is one possible escalation choke-point.
Andrew Logie (Koreanology), suggested that President Park is probably not too reckless. She would probably act to prevent a SK counter-strike – which she has promised though – from spinning out of control. I’m not so confident in that myself; I have the feeling she thinks she is her father’s daughter, the Margaret Thatcher of Korea. But one could imagine USFK flipping out if she just gave a blank check or something to the SK military.
Finally, I think we can all agree that Jeremi Suri should never write on Korean issues ever again. I get enough ‘let’s kick their a—‘ John Bolton-ism on Fox; we really don’t need it on the far more prestigious New York Times op-ed page.