The Korean Tinderbox

This might be as close to a resumption of the Korean War as there has ever been. Over the last few years, between missile tests and the Cheonan sinking, I’ve wondered just how much the South was willing to take in the interest of maintaining peace.

This statement seems to be a very clear message that they won’t be taking anything more.

And why should they? North Korea, in the face of military exercises that the South and the US have been doing for years, just attacked a civilian area and killed South Korean citizens.

The Cheonan was a boat out in the water. All you get there is some images of a wrecked sunken hull. In this scenario, you have tv screen beaming out pictures of a South Korean town in flames, as a result of a flagrant attack by North Korean forces.

That image is political poison. The current government of South Korea, the Grand National Party, is dead in the water with images like that, especially as their only reaction is condemnation.

So, you have China calling for a resumption of 6-party talks, Japan rejecting that, North Korea ignoring it and the US sending a carrier group to the area. Probably all one big pissing contest…for the moment.

But it really can’t take much more. It just can’t. There is only so much provocation South Korea can be expected to deal with, only so much that the North can be allowed get away with.

And this isn’t just the North being a super-villain. They want aid money, they want blackmail payments and this is the way they get them. Rattle the sabres and the free world pays up. But that’s all a matter of calculation: Measuring how much they can push it without incurring a counter strike. It seems like the math is just inside the boundaries this time. But it might not be in the future.

There are so many factors here: Northern nuclear capability, how far China will support the Kims, how much of a commitment the US is willing to make (on the back of two very long, expensive wars abroad), and all those missiles, bombs and artillery pointed at Seoul.

And really, just how much South Korea is willing to give up, in terms of lives, infrastructure and money to take care of the North once and for all. That goes beyond a war and into reunification, reconstruction and rebuilding. But it may be that, for the first time in quite a while, the country is willing to take that step. If it comes to it.

If a war comes, it will be a war that the North starts. Neither the US nor the South will make a first strike, as that would compel Chinese intervention. I think, if the North pulls another stunt like this inside the next 18-24 months, you’ll see a definitive Southern counter-strike, a measured one, a “proportional response” as they say. Where the peninsula goes from there is anyones guess but the peaceful options will be decidedly limited. Barring Chinese escalation, the result would not be in doubt but the cost would be.

Like I said, calculation. The South will face political embarrassment if they do nothing, widescale destruction if they do. The benefits of any war with the North are most definitely long-term. Many Koreans may find the idea of having the guy next door pointing guns in your face taken care of attractive. But its the “taking care of” that’s a problem.

Peace has been given plenty of chances. It might be the turn of war soon.

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