Korean Tensions Leave U.S. With 'Lousy Options'

The South Korean Army conducts live artillery exercise 20 miles from the North-South Korea border, Dec. 23, 2010. i i

The South Korean Army's K-9 self-propelled guns fire live rounds on the Seungjin Fire Training Field in mountainous Pocheon, South Korea, 20 miles from the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea, on Thursday. South Korean tanks fired artillery and fighter jets zoomed by to drop bombs in the military's largest air-and-ground firing drills of the year, a show of force one month after a deadly North Korean artillery attack. Park Ji-ho/Yonhap/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Park Ji-ho/Yonhap/AP
The South Korean Army conducts live artillery exercise 20 miles from the North-South Korea border, Dec. 23, 2010.

The South Korean Army's K-9 self-propelled guns fire live rounds on the Seungjin Fire Training Field in mountainous Pocheon, South Korea, 20 miles from the heavily fortified border between North and South Korea, on Thursday. South Korean tanks fired artillery and fighter jets zoomed by to drop bombs in the military's largest air-and-ground firing drills of the year, a show of force one month after a deadly North Korean artillery attack.

Park Ji-ho/Yonhap/AP

Tensions along the Korean peninsula are nothing new, but they have worsened this week.

In response to attacks from North Korea that have killed 50 people this year, South Korea has been engaging in extensive military exercises along the border.

These led Kim Yong Chun, North Korea's defense chief, to warn Thursday that his country would engage in a "sacred" war if its territory is hit, threatening to use nuclear weapons and "wipe out" South Korea and the United States.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, just back from an unofficial diplomatic mission in North Korea, told The Associated Press that the situation is a "tinderbox" and "the worst I have ever seen on the peninsula."

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (front) visits front-line soldiers, Dec. 23, 2010 i i

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (front) visits soldiers at a military observation post of a front-line unit in the demilitarized zone in Yanggu, far northeast of Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday. Yonhap/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yonhap/AFP/Getty Images
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (front) visits front-line soldiers, Dec. 23, 2010

South Korean President Lee Myung-bak (front) visits soldiers at a military observation post of a front-line unit in the demilitarized zone in Yanggu, far northeast of Seoul, South Korea, on Thursday.

Yonhap/AFP/Getty Images

How Wars Start

Through the decades since the Korean War of the early 1950s, North Korea has repeatedly engaged in attacks against its neighbor to the south.

In March, a North Korean torpedo sank the Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, killing 46 sailors. A month ago, North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong Island, killing two South Korean marines and two civilians.

"In regard to the artillery shelling, this was a military action," says Victor Cha, a former director of Asian affairs for the National Security Council. "We've seen skirmishes, but not premeditated military action really since 1968, when the North Koreans attempted to raid the South's presidential compound."

North Korea's provocations are getting more violent and the time between them is shorter, says Katrin Katz, another former National Security Council official.

Adding further volatility to the mix is a new desire in South Korea to retaliate, if not in kind, then with highly visible shows of force such as the current military exercises.

"It's clearly a very dangerous dynamic that we're in right now," says Cha, who teaches government and Asian studies at Georgetown University. "The real danger is that if the North Koreans continue to believe they can act with impunity and South Korea feels impelled to respond, this is how war starts."

North Korea: Not Done Yet

North Korea devotes an enormous share of its limited GDP to military expenditures, including the development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Katharine Moon, director of the East Asian Studies Program at Wellesley College, says that North Korea had been "spoiled" by weak responses to its provocations in the past.

"They were used to having South Korean presidents look the other way when they acted provocatively or belligerently, and were still forthcoming with aid," Moon says.

North Korea may now be feeling provoked itself, Moon suggests, with South Korea conducting exercises near its border and along disputed maritime territory.

Other observers suggest that North Korea has sought to tweak South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, who had taken a less conciliatory stance toward his neighbor than his recent predecessors, even prior to the recent incidents.

"I do expect North Korea to continue to act belligerently," says Abraham Denmark, a former Defense Department official who now directs the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, or CNAS. "No one thinks they're done."

The South's Muscular Response

There is a saying that North Korea is willing to cut off its leg, while South Korea is not willing to cut off its pinkie.

"North Korea probably figures it has little to lose — civilian casualties are a minor concern for a regime which places low value on the survival of its population — and much to gain in economic and humanitarian concessions from pushing its neighbors to the brink," says Katz, the former National Security Council official. "After all, in the past, provocative behavior has brought the U.S. and other regional players back to the negotiating table."

And South Korea has more to lose when the peaceful status quo is shattered, given its economic success.

But Lee, the South Korean president, came under tremendous pressure at home to respond forcefully to the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, which was shown on television.

"There's a great deal of anger in South Korea, more than I've seen in recent years, because of these deaths and these unprovoked attacks," says Denmark, who visited the country last week. "These exercises are an attempt by Lee to demonstrate to the North, and to the South Korean people, that South Korea is strong."

South Korean Army soldiers on patrol south of Seoul, South Korea. i i

South Korean army soldiers patrol near the seaside cease-fire line in Dangjin, south of Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday. Yang Hyun-suk/Yonhap/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Yang Hyun-suk/Yonhap/AP
South Korean Army soldiers on patrol south of Seoul, South Korea.

South Korean army soldiers patrol near the seaside cease-fire line in Dangjin, south of Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday.

Yang Hyun-suk/Yonhap/AP

China's Calculations

If the North has been unafraid to seek attention and concessions from its acts of brinksmanship, South Korea may, in its own way, be seeking to put pressure on China to rein in North Korea.

China is commonly seen as the main prop supporting North Korea, but it also benefits greatly from economic trade with South Korea. The South may be sending signals that "both Koreas will be a pain in the neck for the Chinese, not just the North Koreans," Moon says.

Western analysts believe that China is reluctant to agree to further sanctions against North Korea because it worries about the destabilizing effects on Kim Jong Il's regime, which could trigger a refugee crisis on its border, among other challenges.

"They don't want to see the North Koreans collapse," says Cha, the Georgetown professor. "They see it as a strategic buffer. They don't want a unified, democratic Korea allied with the U.S. on their southern border. That's a core strategic calculation that they've made for some time."

Enough Time To Prepare?

Kim, who has been in ill health, has only recently begun the project of preparing his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, who is believed to be 26, for power.

Denmark, the CNAS analyst and former defense official, does not believe the North Korean regime is in danger of collapsing over the next few years. "If you think back to the 1990s, most people expected North Korea to collapse, given the breakup of the Soviet Union and famine," Denmark says. "It didn't happen."

Still, he expresses real concern about instability if the elder Kim were to die before Kim Jong Un has time to establish his own bona fides and networks within the North Korean military and civilian government. "North Korea threatens the South not just with its military strength but also with its weakness," according to a recent CNAS report Denmark co-authored.

More Challenges Lie Ahead

As dangerous as tensions between the Koreas have been, the potential for collapse of the North Korean regime and unification with the South presents possibly even greater challenges — not just for South Korea and China but for the entire region and the U.S.

Aside from the refugee and humanitarian crisis likely to ensue and the risks posed by the North's nuclear arsenal, rejoining the two countries — with their entirely different political and economic systems — would make German unification seem easy.

Both the immediate threat of belligerence along the border morphing into a shooting war, and the longer-term challenges posed by North Korea's nuclear program and the fragility of its regime, leave the U.S. with no good options, says Cha.

"There's no military option for dealing with this, and diplomatic options have been tried for 25 years now and had limited success," he says. "But if we do nothing, the North Koreans continue to sit in their hole, making their weapons."

"North Korea policy," Cha adds, "is a land of lousy options."

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