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Keyword in Focus: North Korea

When will this border be crossed again? photo:fresh888/flickr

After Tuesday’s incident, in which North Korea reportedly shot 170 rounds of artillery on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong killing two civilians and two marines, tensions have been at an all-time high in East Asia. Increasingly unpredictable and volatile in its behavior, the Kim regime seems to have embraced a whole new level of brinkmanship in this long-running conflict. Explanations in terms of reasons for such a brazen attack vary, from the internal power dynamics of the elder Kim shifting power to his newly appointed heir-apparent, to simple blackmail. Although we may never know what caused North Korea to risk so much (also in relation to its increasingly impatient ‘big brother’, China) the worry that the Koreas and their closest allies might be drawn into a war because of a provocation or freak accident is as worrying as ever.

I don’t believe that this conflict will escalate further. North Korea has pushed proverbial buttons before and will undoubtedly continue to do so, whether to consolidate the heir-apparent’s power base in the military or in order to push members of the six party forum to grant it further concessions in a yet unforeseeable round of talks. It is, however, unlikely to be willing to sign its own death certificate in the form of a highly destructive war and one which could involve the threat or actual use of nuclear weapons (shudder). We may not want to place much trust on the rational capabilities of Kim and his entourage, but China, for one, will do all it can to prevent this.

While South Korea, the US and China not only want to, but have to avoid a war, recent talk in South Korea points to a potentially dangerous (if understandable) hardening of attitudes. Demands that the South Korean army react quicker and with overwhelming force to any future provocations are being aired (it took 13 minutes for the South’s military to respond on Tuesday). This raises the risk of a more-or-less accidental escalation. While it is perfectly understandable that South Koreans fear further attacks, narrowing the spectrum for action will only serve to make an uncontrollable escalation more likely. To me, those 13 minutes, while long for the residents of Yeonpyeong, might have just saved the peninsula from an absolutely catastrophic conflict.

Do you think the South Koreans will be able to balance public pressures to react more aggressively with the need to retain a measure of space in decision making in the case of another attack?

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2 Responses to “Keyword in Focus: North Korea”

  1. I agree with you. But North Korea’s actions are a calculated gamble. A policy of limited conflict predicated on the South having a lower threshold of risk than the North. It is a classic game. Unfortunately, in any game, there comes a time when one player ‘raises the stakes’ or ‘calls the bluff’ or miscalculates the other player’s intentions. Policies based on calculated gambles are inherently risky.

  2. Absolutely. And this remains a real risk and would undoubtedly spell disaster for the whole region, if not the world. The key questions of course are: How far is Kim Jong-il willing to push things, and can he, by any stretch of the imagination, be called a “rational actor” any more (and I don’t mean that by ‘rational’ he is somehow moral), and to what degree China is willing and able to look on as Kim rattles the cages further (it has the most to lose in some ways)? Interesting and scary times.