South Korean Calculation

This is a detailed analysis of the presentawakening of the Korean conflict and what is not told in the press is just howmuch of this is driven by South Korean adventurism.  We are so used to the antics of North Korea, that we forget that South Koreahas a huge interest in ending the North Korean regime as soon as possible.

Chinaalmost certainly wants no part of the situation and North Korea presently provides no value as a counter weight toits commercial ally in South Korea. Thus a sudden strike that brought the North’s regime tumbling downserves both Chinese and South Korean Interests. The Chinese simply do not want to be blamed for it.

These maneuvers by the South may well be a way forthe two allies to sucker the North into a desperate assault which can be thwartedby massive USairpower followed up with a general collapse of the North’s infrastructure longbefore an actual ground assault in which the Chinese may actually participatefor humanitarian reasons.

I suspect that the calculation has been made toend the dynasty of the Great Leader.  Letus hope that it is not a miscalculation.

And yes, a major exercise is now beginning and any attack will certainly include an amphibious landing that will bypass the line of demarcation where the bulk of the North Korean army is stuck without the capacity to move under air assault.  They would get to sit out the war shelling rice paddies.

Spiralling out of Control: The Risk of a New Korean War

By Gregory Elich

An artillery duel between North and SouthKorean forces on November 23 has set in motion a series of events whichthreaten to spiral out of control.

On November 22, South Korea began its annual military exercise, involvingincluding 70,000 troops, dozens of South Korean and U.S. warships and some 500aircraft. The following day, South Korean artillery stationed on Yeonpyeong Island began a live ammunition drill,firing shells into the surrounding sea.

The island is situated quite near to the NorthKorean mainland, and lies in disputed waters. At the end of the Korean War in1953, U.S. General Mark Clark unilaterally established the western sea borderto North Korea'sdisadvantage. Rather than in a perpendicular line, the Northern Limit Line wasdrawn to curve sharply upwards, handing over islands and a prime fishing areato the South that would otherwise have gone to North Korea. The North, havinghad no say in the delineation of its sea border, has never recognized theNorthern Limit Line. (1)

South Korean troops have been based on theisland since the end of the Korean War. There is also a small fishing villagein close proximity to the military base; unavoidably so, given that the islandis less than three square miles in size.

In response to the South Korean announcementof an impending artillery drill, North Korea telephoned the SouthKorean military on the morning of November 23, urging them to cancel plans tofire shells into what the North regarded as its territorial waters. The Northwarned that if the drill proceeded, they would respond with a "resolutephysical counter-strike." (2)

Nevertheless, the artillery drill proceededand four hours later, North Korean artillery fired on the island. In the firstround, 150 shells were shot, of which 60 hit the island. Then 20 more shellswere fired in a second round. In all, four people on the island were killed and18 wounded. (3)

The South Korean military telegraphed theNorth, asking them to cease, but to no avail. Then their artillery returnedfire at the North, firing 80 shells. One shell directly hit a North Koreanmilitary barracks. Although many of the shells appeared to have inflictedlittle damage, an official at the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff noted,"Satellite images show our shells landed on a cluster of barracks in North Korea,so we presume there have been many casualties and considerable propertydamage." (4)

Facing a barrage of criticism from domestichawks for having responded in too tepid a manner, South Korean Defense MinisterKim Tae-young resigned from his position. Yet the South Korean responseprobably could not have been increased significantly without risking a widerconflict.

During the drill, South Korean artillery on Yeonpyeong Island fired in a southward direction,away from the North Korean mainland, and this was not the first time that suchdrills had been conducted. North Korean forces could have made their pointsufficiently by splashing some shells into the sea. Instead, they overreactedin a manner that manifested an inexcusable disregard for human life bytargeting the island. 

Why the North did so can best be explained byrecent developments in relations between the two Koreas. This was, after all, thefirst artillery duel between the two nations in forty years, so something ledto it.

President Lee Myung-bak of the conservativeGrand National Party took office in February 2008, vowing to reverse theSunshine Policy of warming relations with North Korea. The government ofLee's predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun, had signed several agreements on economiccooperation with North Korea,including joint mining operations in the North. Lee killed every one theseagreements, ensuring that they would never be implemented. The railroad leadingfrom the South to the North, which had just been reconnected under formerPresident Roh, is now closed for good. That project had promised to benefitboth Koreas, providing theSouth with a cheaper and more convenient route for shipping goods to China and Russia, and giving the North addedincome through user fees. South Korean tourist operations at Mt. Kumgangin the North are closed. Reunions of family members separated by the borderhave stopped. The only remaining remnant of the Sunshine Policy is the presenceof South Korean firms operating at an industrial park in Kaesong, North Korea,and its days are probably numbered.

Then there was the incident in which the SouthKorean corvette Cheonan was sunk, in May of this year. In a stackedinvestigation, South Koreaconcluded that a North Korean submarine had targeted the vessel with a torpedo.The evidence, however, does not fully back that assertion and a Russian team'sinvestigation determined that an accidental encounter with a sea mine was amore likely cause. (5) North Korea's repeated requests to participate inan investigation, or to at least view the evidence, were consistently rebuffed.Instead the Lee Administration utilized the incident to further sour relationsbetween the two Koreas.

Perhaps most significantly, when Roh Moo-hyunwas president of South Korea,emergency communication channels were established between the two Koreas,specifically for the purpose of opening dialogue and limiting or preventingarmed conflicts whenever they arose or threatened to do so. On a number of occasions,those communication channels stopped potential conflicts before they eitheroccurred or escalated. Those channels no longer exist, thanks to Lee'sdismantling of agreements with North Korea, and as a result four South Koreansand an unknown number of North Koreans are now dead. (6)
That North Korea would feel threatenedis not surprising. Its economy is crippled by the imposition of draconianWestern sanctions, and the annual South Korean-U.S. military exercises areintended to intimidate. Furthermore, the rhetoric from Washingtonhas been unremittingly hostile, and now with a more conservative government, sois South Korea's.

Nor is North Korea unaware of the fact that in February 2003,President Bush told Chinese President Jiang Zemin that if the nuclear issuecould not be solved diplomatically, he would "have to consider a militarystrike against North Korea."(7) One month later, Bush ordered a fleet into the region, including theaircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson. Six F-117 Stealth bombers were sent to SouthKorea, and nearly 50 fighters and bombers to Guam.The possibility of military action was on the table, Bush told a South Koreanofficial. (8) Due to the efforts of China and South Korea's progressivepresident at the time, Bush chose dialogue, albeit offset to a large degree byhis imposition of further sanctions against North Korea. It has also certainlynot gone unnoticed by North Korea that any halting diplomatic effortshave ceased altogether once President Obama took office. And with thepronounced deterioration in relations set in motion by President Lee Myung-bak,his administration has made it clear that he has no interest in diplomacyeither.

Following the clash over Yeonpyeong,China called for dialogueand a reduction of tensions, sending envoys to both South and North Korea. It proposed that thesix nations that had at one time participated in denuclearization talks, Southand North Korea, the U.S., Japan, China and Russia, meet for emergencydiscussions "to exchange views on major issues of concern to the partiesat present." The meetings would not be a resumption of talks ondenuclearization, although Chinahoped that "they will create conditions for their resumption."Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei stated, "The starting pointfor China proposingemergency consultations is to ease the tensions on the Korean Peninsulaand provide a platform of engagement and dialogue." (9)

The Chinese proposal should have been welcomedas the only sensible approach to the problem. But officials of the ObamaAdministration condemned Chinafor being "irresponsible" by putting forth such a proposal. Instead,they urged China to get onboard with the program of pressuring North Korea and further escalatingtensions and the risk of war. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs snottilydismissed the proposal by saying that the U.S. and other nations "arenot interested in stabilizing the region through a series of P.R.activities." (10)

South Korea, too, rejected China's proposal. The U.S., South Korea,and Japan willfullymisrepresented China'sproposal as merely being a call for a resumption of the six-party talks ondenuclearization. Domestic audiences were not hearing that the proposal'spurpose was to prevent further conflict. Instead, Japan said that talks wouldbe "impossible" under the circumstances, while a South Koreanofficial said that President Lee "made it clear that now is not the timefor discussing" six-party talks. (11) Indeed. Not when one's goal is tofurther inflame the situation. To further that objective, U.S. Secretary ofState Hillary Clinton is meeting with the foreign secretaries of South Korea and Japanto map out a common program in dealing with North Korea. (12) It goes withoutsaying that dialogue with North Korea will not be part of that program.

President Lee has promised to take a muchharder line on North Korea,and already the South has sent 400,000 propaganda leaflets across the border onballoons. (13) There has also been talk of resuming loudspeaker broadcasts acrossthe border. The sending of leaflets was in violation of a 2004 agreementbetween the two sides to halt propaganda campaigns aimed at each other.

By the end of December, South Korea plans to hold another round ofartillery drills on islands lying in disputed waters, including, dismayinglyenough, Yeonpyeong Island. Nothing could becalculated to be more provoking under the circumstances. In preparation for theresponse to the drills that are expected from North Korea, island defenses arebeing beefed up. South Korea has added multiple rocket launchers, howitzers,missile systems and advanced precision-guided artillery to the Yeonpyeongarsenal. (14)

According to a South Korean official, "Wedecided to stage the same kind of fire drill as the one we carried out on theisland on November 23 to display our determination." (15)

The new drills appear calculated to provoke aconflict, and this time South Korea is intent on an asymmetrical response.The military is revising its rules of engagement so as to jettison concernsabout starting a wider conflict. If former Defense Minister Kim Tae-young is tobelieved, if there is another North Korean strike, then warships and fighterjets of both South Korea andthe U.S.will launch attacks on the North. (16)

Incoming Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin is ifanything even more determined to fan the flames of conflict into a widerconflagration. The South Korean military will immediately launch"psychological warfare," including, presumably, loudspeakerbroadcasts across the border. The North has promised to target loudspeakers ifthey are put in operation,  and that would in turn provide thepretext for the South Korean military to launch combat operations. If there isanother exchange of fire with the North, Kim announced, "We willdefinitely air raid North Korea." All combat forces availablewould be mobilized, he promised.  The newly minted rules ofengagement are also going to permit "preemptive" strikes on North Koreabased on the presumption of a possible attack. In other words, if North Koreafails to provide a pretext for military action, the Lee Administration canattack the North without provocation, if it chooses to do so. (17)

Lee Myung-bak has already achieved his dream of demolishing theSunshine Policy. Relations between the two Koreasare at their lowest point since the end of military dictatorship in South Korea.Now he aims to deliberately trigger armed conflict in order to demonstrate"toughness," and not incidentally, drive the final nail into thecoffin of the Sunshine Policy. Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin feels that therisk of war is low. "It will be difficult for North Korea to conduct a full-scalewar because there are some elements of insecurity in the country, such as thenational economy and power transfer." (18) Those may be arguments against North Korea'sability to successfully sustain a long-term war over the course of a year ortwo, but it seriously misreads the ability and will of the North Koreanmilitary to put up a determined fight. The extent of possible South Korean airstrikes on the North is not clear, but anything other than an extremely limitedand localized action is likely to trigger total war. And that is a war that theU.S.will inevitably be drawn into. Even presuming a quick defeat of the North(which would be unlikely), eighty percent of North Korea is mountainous,providing ideal terrain for North Korean forces to conduct guerrilla warfare.The U.S.could find itself involved in another failing military occupation. With bothsides heavily armed, the consequences could be much worse for Koreans, andcasualties could reach alarming totals. Four million Koreans died in the KoreanWar. Even one percent of that total in a new war would be unconscionable, andLee Myung-bak is deluded if he believes he can ride the tiger of armed conflictand remain in control of the path it takes.


(1)  For a map of the Northern Limit Line and Yeonpyeong's placement, see: Theblue line identifies the Northern Limit Line recognized by South Korea and theU.S., and the red line, the border as recognized by North Korea. Yeonpyeong Island is marked #1 on the map.

(2) "Panmunjom Mission of KPA Sends Noticeto U.S. Forces Side,"KCNA (Pyongyang),November 25, 2010.

(3) "Military Under Fire for Response to N. Korean Attack," ChosunIlbo (Seoul),November 25, 2010.

(4) "Military Suggests Counterfire Caused 'Many Casualties' in N.Korea," Yonhap (Seoul),December 2, 2010. Jung Sung-ki, "Satellite Image Shows Damages in NKArtillery Site," KoreaTimes (Seoul),December 2, 2010.


(6)  "Containment After N.Korea's Unacceptable Provocation,"Hankyoreh (Seoul),November 24, 2010.

(7)  Hwang Doo-hyong, "Bush Expresses Frustration at China's Reluctance to Dissuade N. Korea fromGoing Nuclear: Memoir," Yonhap (Seoul),November 10, 2010.

(8) "Bush Admits He Considered a Military Strike Against North Korea," Korean Broadcasting System (Seoul), March 18,2004. "Carl Vinson Strike Group CVN-70 'Gold Eagle',"  Will Dunham, "U.S. MilitaryOperations for N.Korea Fraught with Peril," Reuters, April 25, 2003.

(9) Kim Young-gyo, "ChinaCalls for Emergency Talks on N. Korean Nukes," Yonhap (Seoul), November 28, 2010. "China Calls for Resumption of Dialogue,Negotiations for Korean Peninsula Situation," Xinhua (Beijing), November 30,2010. "Chinese FM Talks with DPRK, ROK,U.S. Diplomats on KoreanPeninsular Situation," Xinhua (Beijing),November 26, 2010.

(10) Helene Cooper and Sharon LaFraniere, "U.S.and South KoreaBalk at Talks with North," New York Times, November 30, 2010.

(11)  Hwang Joon bum and Park Min-hee, "Lee Administration RejectsSix-Party Talks Proposal," Hankyoreh (Seoul), November 29, 2010. TaniaBranigan, "US Rejects Talks with North Korea,"The Guardian (London),November 30, 2010.

(12) "Kim, Clinton Agree to Reject China'sProposal for Talks on N. Korea," Yonahp (Seoul), December 1, 2010.

(13) "S. Korea Sent Propaganda Leaflets to N. Korea After ArtilleryAttack," Yonhap (Seoul),November 26, 2010.

(14) Jung Sung-ki, "Seoul Plans Live-FireDrill Next Week," KoreaTimes (Seoul),December 1, 2010. "New Defence Minister to Decide When to StageFiring Drills in Yellow Sea," Yonhap (Seoul), December 3, 2010. "TensionMounts as Firing Drill Planned," JoongAng Ilbo (Seoul), December 2, 2010.

(15) "S. Korea to Stage Fresh Firing Drill on YeonpyeongIsland," Chosun Ilbo (Seoul), November 30, 2010.

(16) Jung Sung-ki, "Seoul Vows Naval, AirStrikes on NK," KoreaTimes (Seoul),November 29, 2010.

(17)  "Defense Minister Nominee Vows Air Strikes if Attacked by N.Korea," Yonhap (Seoul),December 3, 2010. Kim Kwang-tae, "SKorea Defense Nominee Vows Airstrikeson North," Associated Press, December 2, 2010. Song Sang-ho,"Kim Warns Air Strike on North Korea,"Korea Herald (Seoul), December 3,2010. Na Jeong-ju, "Defense Chief-Nominee Vows Air Strikes ifAttacked," Korea Times(Seoul),December 3, 2010. Mark McDonald, "South Korean Outlines MuscularMilitary Postures," New YorkTimes, December 3, 2010.

(18)  "Defense Minister Nominee Vows Air Strikes if Attacked by N.Korea," Yonhap (Seoul),December 3, 2010.

Gregory Elich is on the Board ofDirectors of the Jasenovac Research Institute and on the Advisory Board of theKorea Truth Commission. He is the author of the book Strange Liberators:Militarism, Mayhem, and the Pursuit of Profit.

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