What Does Korea’s Chaos Portend for the United States?

December 18th, 2010

By Dan Miller

How volatile will the North be during its transfer of power?

Recent Events:

On March 26 North Korea sank the South Korean naval vessel Cheonan southwest of the island of Baeknyeong-do just south of the contested sea border with North Korea. It resulted in the loss of forty-six lives. North Korea denied all responsibility. On November 23 North Korea attacked the populated island of Yeonpyeong-do close to similarly contested waters. This resulted in the loss of four lives, two military and two civilian. North Korea acknowledged that it had fired artillery at the island, but blamed its action on South Korean provocations.

The North Korean attack on Yeonpyenong-do came soon after North Korea had revealed “its shiny new uranium-based nuclear program to the world.” That revelation may well have been seen by North Korea as insurance against significant retaliation. Following the attack on Yeonpyenong-do, North Korean state media said that Pyongyang “will wage second and even third rounds of attacks without any hesitation, if warmongers in South Korea make reckless military provocations again.”

Following the Yeonpyeong-do incident, the North Korean economy — already a disaster — worsened dramatically. Inflation, already high, spiked. “One hundred yuan [Chinese currency], which before the shelling went for 2,000 won, is now worth 35,000 won.” Local manufacturers, uncertain about their supplies of Chinese goods, have been exchanging their won for Chinese currency while they still can and conserving their increasingly scarce Chinese supplies. Domestic prices have increased substantially, the price of a kilogram of rice increasing from 900 won to 1,600 won. Corn climbed from 4,000 won per kilogram to 6,000 won.

The United States and South Korea held brief and uneventful naval exercises in the South China Sea from November 28 through December 1, and later the United States held similarly uneventful naval exercises with Japan. Both were held against a background of efforts by China to resurrect wide ranging six-party talks allegedly to cool down military ardor and to obtain economic assistance for North Korea. The further activities and rhetoric of North Korea negated these efforts and China seems to be increasingly concerned with the escalating tensions. China’s efforts are likely motivated more by her own domestic concerns, including inflation, than anything else; this article and this support the thesis that China may be in for a rough ride economically and domestically. The United States has substantial economic concerns about China’s economy.

This analysis seems to read the tea leaves pretty well. North Korea demands copious aid, including sources of hard currency and food, and respect. Prior to the attack on Yeonpyeong-do, North Korea had demanded those things:

Half the nation’s children are malnourished, some starving. North Korea’s leaders obviously don’t care much about that. But if the people are starving, then the “Great Leader” Kim Jong Il and his mandarins probably don’t have everything they want, either.

However, the North was rebuffed. So, like a very spoiled and self-destructive brat North Korea threw a tantrum:

What could North Korea do next? No one was showing respect. No one was offering aid. So the military opened fire. After that, the world did suddenly pay attention again, and at first it followed the script. Everyone urged China, North Korea’s only ally, to restrain its neighbor. President Obama made his call on Monday [December 6, fourteen days after the attack on Yeonpyenong-do]. China, as usual, refused and instead invited the United States and other nations to Beijing for talks — just what North Korea had wanted.

Around the table, the North Koreans could once again demand bounteous aid in exchange for a promise of no further attacks.

Well, this time was different. The United States, Japan and South Korea refused to attend. By now, they knew the game. When a North Korean official showed up for the talks last Friday, nobody else was there.

The author of the linked article predicted in consequence “a stronger, more deadly attack” to follow that on Yeonpyeong-do.

South Korea clearly envisions some form of military action as well. On December 6 new South Korean rules of engagement were announced, under which “the South Korean military will exercise self-defense based on an “act first, report later” principle”:

“The commanders of each military service will give orders for self-defense,” said Jang Gwang-il, head of defense policy at the ministry. “Self-defense will be exercised until the origin of the provocation is hit, and [the retaliation] will not be bound by the Korean War cease-fire agreement or rules of battle.” Jang said that the U.S. and South Korea had a mutual understanding on the issue.

Jang also called for the preparing of more troops for battle on the field. He also ordered higher-ranking officials to simplify orders for those lower on the chain of command to give them more leeway to act quickly and creatively in an emergency.

Catch and Release are probably not part of the new rules of engagement. Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the United States military Chiefs of Staff, on December 6 announced plans to visit South Korea during the week of December 6 to reassure the South Korean military that the United States “stands by” them. According to this article, his departure the same day as the announcement was “swift.” Once he arrived:

Mullen warned that North Korea should not mistake South Korean restraint as a lack of resolve. “Nor should they interpret it as willingness to accept continued attacks,” Mullen said at a joint news conference with his South Korean counterpart, Gen. Han Min-koo, after the two met in Seoul.

“Your readiness to defend your territory and your citizens is unmistakable, and my country’s commitment to helping you do that is unquestioned,” Mullen said.

Defense Secretary Gates, contemporaneously but quite less dramatically than Admiral Mullen, told “U.S. sailors aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln in the Arabian Sea” on December 6 that:

I think this is a difficult and potentially dangerous time. … The North Koreans have engaged in some very provocative actions. They get everyone upset, then they volunteer to come back to talks, and we basically end up buying the same horse twice.

So I think we need to figure out the way ahead with North Korea. … Nobody wants a war on the Korean peninsula. And I think we just have to work with the Chinese and with others to see if we can’t bring some greater stability, some greater predictability to the regime in Pyongyang.”

Secretary Gates appears to attribute to the North more rationality and perceptions shared with the United States and others than do either Admiral Mullen or some unidentified “senior government official(s)” mentioned below. If, as reported here, North Korea has the world’s largest artillery force, it seems imprudent for the Secretary of Defense to make such assumptions; they have generally turned out to be wrong in the past.

Following a December 6 meeting in Washington of South Korean Foreign Minister Kim Sung-hwan, Secretary Clinton and Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara, a “senior government official speaking on condition of anonymity” (it is unclear of which government) said:

“There can be no difference of opinions between them over the fact that the North should pay the price if it launches additional provocations. The U.S. and Japan say they fully respect South Korea’s military response to the North’s attack,” he said. “We can’t accept arguments that we should sit idly if the North kills civilians or attacks with submarines. We have the right to fight back.”

Asked if South Korea can mobilize fighters and bomb the North on its own in response to any additional provocation, he said the South Korean and U.S. militaries “have already discussed this issue.”

According to a (different?) “senior administration official also speaking on condition of anonymity, “the Chinese embrace of North Korea in the last eight months has served to convince North Korea that China has its back and has encouraged it to behave with impunity.” China characterized such remarks as irresponsible. Meanwhile, United States relations with China have “plunged into a freeze. This year has witnessed the longest period of tension between the two capitals in a decade. And if anything, both sides appear to be hardening their positions.” In extremis, North Korea might conceivably be dissuaded by China from attacking South Korea, perhaps Seoul, massively; she might not be. North Korea has an A Bomb. Whether she has the capability of dropping it in Seoul is unclear, but she probably does not.

On December 11, North Korean media characterized the December 6 Mullen meeting as “little short of a declaration of an all-out war” and announced that in the event of an attack the North would “deal merciless retaliatory blows at the provocateurs and aggressors and blow up their citadels and bases and thus honorably defend the dignity and security of the nation. … The warmongers of South Korea and the U.S. imperialists had better behave themselves.” It was also stated that an all out war would not be limited to the Korean peninsula.

It has been suggested and that the Kim regime is “cracking.” The transition of power to “Kim Jong-un is going badly,” Kim Jong-Il is very ill and maybe no longer in control. His youngest son, Kim Jong-un, is far from established. There is a possibility that his sister and her husband could take over the Kim dynasty. However:

Given the parlous economic condition of the country, the ruling elites have an ever-shrinking share of the spoils to divide between them, and there is always the chance that other powerful blocs, particularly within the military, [may] try to make a power grab.

To put it mildly, things are up in the air.

Following a meeting with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang on December 12, State Councilor Dai Bingguo (the top Chinese foreign policy official) accused Admiral Mullen of increasing tensions in the region rather than defusing them. According to Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Jiang, “those persons making accusations against China, I ask what kind of efforts has he done to promote regional stability and peace … Military threats cannot solve problems and can only increase tensions.” North Korean sources stated that:

Bingguo conveyed a greeting from President Hu Jintao and presented Kim with a gift, reinforcing the cozy Pyongyang-Beijing relationship that has drawn recent criticism from the United States and other nations involved in the six-party talks about North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

On December 13, United States and South Korean officials began “systematic” discussion of extended deterrence:

The U.S. can provide tactical and strategic nuclear weapons, conventional strike and missile defense capabilities to defend South Korea in case of an attack from North Korea. It is the first time for the U.S. to create such a committee with a non-NATO ally.

Looking to the near future:

It was argued in a December 12 Ria Novosti article by a Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences, that:

North Korea no longer takes American security guarantees seriously. … Now that the Obama administration has shown that, unlike the previous Republican administration, it does not necessarily take so robust stance on defending its allies, North Korea has begun to “vet” the United States to see if, under certain circumstances, they would be prepared to abandon their allies in the Pacific, especially since the United States already has serious ongoing commitments to two theaters of conflict: Iraq and Afghanistan.

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10 Responses to “What Does Korea’s Chaos Portend for the United States?”

  1. Dan Miller |

    Here is a bit more on the temporarily delayed South Korean live-fire exercises.

    South Korea’s K-9 self-propelled artillery, 105mm light howitzers, Vulcan guns and 81mm mortars will participate in the drill, covered by KF-16s and F-15Ks, the mainstays of the Korean Air Force. Military authorities stress the drill will take place on a “clear weather day” as nearby naval and air assets must be put on standby in the event of a situation such as a North Korean attack, but if the weather is bad, the aircraft cannot fly. If the concern arises that North Korea will launch an artillery strike in response as it did on Nov. 23, a limited firefight will likely develop. Pertaining to this, it is worth nothing that the U.S. military, as part of the United Nations Command Military Armistice Commission, has decided to participated [sic] in this drill as observers, while simultaneously deploying about 20 soldiers to give command, communication and medical support. The objective of this is believed to be both to support the South Korean military in case of a North Korean attack while preventing an escalation.

    The Yeonpyeong Island drill will reportedly begin at around 10 a.m. on the day it is ordered. Some 60 percent of the guns on the island will participate, firing in a southwest direction. The remaining 40 percent will be aimed at North Korea’s coastal artillery positions in preparation for a contingency. (emphasis added)

    The participation, even as observers, of twenty U.S. soldiers for the stated purposes seems very important; should they become casualties, U.S. military involvement may well increase. Even century old history often provides some guidance to the future.On a visit to his friend General Foch in France in January of 1910, General Wilson asked,

    What is the smallest British military force that would be of any practical assistance to you?

    Like a rapier flash came Foch’s reply, “A single British soldier — and we will see to it that he is killed.” (Barbara W. Tuchman, The Guns of August, p. 49)

  2. Tom Carter |

    Dan, thanks for your series of acticles on the situation on the Korean Peninsula. With everything else that’s been going on, I really haven’t paid much attention, and I think a lot of people are making the same mistake. After reading your articles and following the links for additional details, it’s clear that this is the place and the time where all hell may break loose. And it may happen soon because of the weird dynamics of the impending regime change, whatever direction it may ultimately take.

    The nuclear weapons issue is obviously a huge concern. I agree with you that NK probably doesn’t have a lot in the way of good, reliable delivery systems, propaganda notwithstanding. But assuming that they have at least one functional warhead, all they have to do is drive it somewhere on a truck and set it off. Talk about letting slip the dogs of war….

    The Tuchman quote (a really great work of history) perfectly explains what our troops in SK always have been — a tripwire. Doesn’t matter if it’s one, 20, or 30,000. Makes one wonder what the current Administration would do if U.S. troops there came under attack. First thing that might be necessary would be to bring in the TSA to do some pat-downs in search of cojones.

  3. Dan Miller |

    The United Nations Security Council is scheduled to meet on Sunday morning at 11:00 am, Eastern Standard Time, to discuss the volatile situation in Korea.

    The Security Council scheduled emergency closed-door consultations on North Korea for 11 a.m. EST (1600 GMT) Sunday at Russia’s request, said Mark Kornblau, spokesman for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations. The United States holds the council’s rotating presidency this month.

    Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin said the Russian government believes the Security Council must send “a restraining signal” to North Korea and help launch diplomatic actions to resolve all disputes between North Korea and South Korea.

    China, the North’s key ally, has said it is “unambiguously opposed” to any acts that could worsen already-high tensions on the Korean peninsula.

    Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, called for restraint from all parties concerned to avoid escalation of tension on the Korean peninsula, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency.

    To the extent that there is more than a foggy announcement of the results of the meeting it may be interesting. However, I suspect that China and to a lesser extent Russia will seek some sort of action to restrain South Korea. Neither has thus far had any success in restraining North Korea and it seems unlikely that any UN resolution would either.

    Here is an imperfect metaphor for the situation. Little Billy Bully and little Mike Meek are students at Librul Middle School. Their fathers are both on the school board. Billy had for a long time been demanding that Mike surrender his lunch money at recess and Mike had complied; beats fighting. One day, Mike refuses and Billy punches him in the nose. Mike hits back and both are expelled. At a school board meeting, Mr. Bully and Mr. Meek seek a consensus. Mr. Bully supports little Billy, urging that he is just a troubled kid and should not be expelled but if he is that the same fate should befall little Mike. Mr. Meek disagrees, contending that only little Billy should be suspended, for one week, and receive psychological counseling: little Mike was simply defending himself from an attack for failing to yield to extortion and should face no punitive action. The school board reaches a compromise under which neither is expelled or suspended and both are to receive psychological counseling. Two days later, Billy repeats his earlier actions. What, oh what, is the school board to do?

  4. Tom Carter |

    Thanks for the update, Dan.

    There’s another example that’s appropriate here. Talk of restraining South Korea is about the same as criticizing Israel for reacting to repeated attacks from terrorists. It all goes to the current focus on moral equivalence — both sides in a dispute being equally condemned, when one is clearly the instigator and the bad actor.

  5. Dan Miller |

    Tom, you say that in the event of U.S. casualties, First thing that might be necessary would be to bring in the TSA to do some pat-downs in search of cojones. That reminds me of a story told by Brand Blanshard in a philosophy class I attended. He compared a philosopher and a theologian, both looking at midnight in a dark closet for a black cat that wasn’t there. The theologian claimed to have found the cat.

  6. Dan Miller |

    This guy is apparently sitting outside the closed UN Security Council meeting and is providing updates via Twitter every half an hour or so as people enter and leave.

  7. Dan Miller |

    According to this report, the UN Security Council session has ended with no agreement and South Korea plans very shortly to begin live fire exercises.

    The U.N. Secretariat distributed to council members a document on an investigation of the November 23 shelling by the so-called U.N. Command, the U.S.-led military forces in South Korea that monitor compliance with the 1953 Armistice Agreement that ended the Korean War.

    That probe concluded the South did not violate the armistice with its November 23 military drills in disputed waters, while the North committed a “deliberate and premeditated attack” that was a “serious violation” of the ceasefire, according to the document, which was obtained by Reuters.

    North Korea has called the artillery fire drill by the South a suicidal war move that would trigger all-out conflict on the peninsula and said it would strike back in self-defense.

    The South has said if it was attacked in the same manner as last month, it would hit back hard with air power and bombing.

    Analysts were skeptical the North would carry through with its threats. The North will likely respond by holding a live-fire drill on its side of the tensely guarded sea border if the South goes ahead with its exercise, they said.

    Seoul appears determined to go ahead, anxious to avoid a repeat of domestic criticism in November for its perceived weak response to the shelling of Yeonpyeong.

    South Korea’s marines plan to test artillery firing from the island targeting its territorial waters to its southwest, the same type of exercise that led to last month’s exchange of fire.

    Concern mounted on the island among the few residents who remained.

    It looks as though this may be “it,” whatever “it” is.

  8. Dan Miller |

    It’s just after 3:00 am Monday EST and 5:00 pm Monday Korea time. The South Korean live fire exercises began at about 2:45 pm Monday Korean time and ended about two hours later. No North Korean response has yet been reported, and the usual news sources seem strangely silent. I don’t know whether there is a news blackout or something else.

    We should know in a few hours.

  9. Dan Miller |

    North Korea has thus far refrained from further military action. The situation is similar to a shell game at a carnival: the pea has been hidden and where it may go next is known to no one. The Kim dynasty and its closest associates may have some valid ideas but I doubt seriously that anyone else does. I certainly don’t. North Korea may have seen the miraculous wonders of peace, it may wait for a more opportune moment to do something unfortunate or it may attack South Korea without warning when it deems the time right without regard to the consequences.

    The United States, South Korea and the rest of the world should not simply go on to more interesting stuff in the interim. The fat lady has yet to sing.

  10. Tom Carter |

    Seems this is an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation in which one side is eventually going to have to blink. Common sense is a term that often doesn’t apply to North Korea, but in this case they may have to blink because they know that they can’t win if they instigate a war. The U.S., Japan, and their allies will respond in support of South Korea, while Russian and Chinese support for North Korea would be minimal and grudging. Kim and his Mini-Me may be too deranged to understand this, but I doubt that the North Korean military is. Like all dictators with a strong army, Kim rules at the sufferance of the generals. I’m sure he understands that, if nothing else.

    Or maybe not, and all hell is about to break loose.

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