North Korea shelled Yeonpyeong, an island administered by Seoul, on Tuesday. Four died. Two of them were civilians.
What does every analyst say about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea? That it is unpredictable. Yes, Pyongyang can surprise us, but it’s more precise to say that the North follows its own logic. And North Korean logic dictated that its leader would launch another deadly attack. The only things we did not know were where that assault would take place and when it would occur.
And how did we know another gruesome incident was almost certain? Kim Jong Il, North Korea’s leader, promotes his songun, or “military first,” politics. “Military first” means exactly what it says and maybe even a bit more. Kim’s regime not only begins with the army, it ends with the army.
His boast — “My power comes from the military” — accurately identifies the source of his current strength. In a country of about 23 million souls, there are around 1.2 million active-duty soldiers, sailors, and pilots and perhaps as many as 8.2 million reservists. North Korea has — by far — the highest percentage of its population in uniform.
As the Wall Street Journal’s Evan Ramstad notes, the central problem stemming from Kim’s military-first politics is that the government’s legitimacy is dependent on military success. And because no one is attacking the North at this moment — in fact, no country has ever launched an unprovoked attack on that miserable state — Chairman Kim feels the need to initiate deadly incidents. Therefore, he ordered the torpedo attack on the Cheonan, a South Korean frigate, this March — 46 deaths — and the shelling of Yeonpyeong this week. He will order more assaults unless he is stopped.
Unfortunately, neither the United States nor South Korea is bent on doing so. Both of them are afraid of provoking Kim and triggering wider conflict on the Korean peninsula. What was President Lee Myung-bak’s first command at an emergency meeting following the shelling on Tuesday? Ramstad reports that an aide said it was “make sure this doesn’t escalate.”
In fact, on Tuesday President Lee warned of “enormous retaliation” the next time North Korea strikes the South. But Seoul talked of “stern countermeasures” after the sinking of the Cheonan eight months ago and did nothing. On Tuesday, Lee declared North Korea’s “indiscriminate attack on civilians can never be tolerated.” But he is in fact tolerating the attack on civilians, taking no steps other than issuing strong words.
If President Lee releases hollow statements, it is because he is the leader of a country that is deeply afraid of the North and which is determined to avoid conflict. Moreover, about half of the electorate — the so-called “progressives” — are sympathetic to the North due to the kinship of “blood,” so Lee is trying to appease South Korean voters as well as North Korean aggressors.
“The question for South Korea is how much more serious can these attacks get before the risk of doing nothing, and showing there’s no cost, is worse than the risk of prompting an overreaction by North Korea,” says risk consultant Andrew Gilholm to the Wall Street Journal. “My own view is we’re still not at that level.”
Gilholm’s assessment mirrors that of Washington policy insiders. So there has been a decision, made as much by drift as well as design, to tolerate South Korean casualties. That was the thinking behind the failure to send the George Washington, the nuclear-powered carrier, into the Yellow Sea for joint exercises with South Korea after the Cheonan incident.
Predictably, the soft approach did not work. On Wednesday, the Pentagon announced that the carrier and its strike group were on their way to the Yellow Sea for drills with South Korean vessels. If the Obama administration had ordered the George Washington to the area this summer, the shelling of Yeonpyeong might never have happened.
The beneficial effect of sending the carrier to waters close to North Korea was unfortunately diluted by other Obama administration responses. For instance, special envoy Stephen Bosworth said that the artillery duel on Tuesday — the South Koreans eventually got around to returning fire — “is very undesirable” and then called for “all sides” to exercise “restraint.”
General Walter Sharp, the American general in command of UN forces in South Korea, was hardly more inspiring in the face of North Korean aggression. His response to Pyongyang’s murder of South Korean civilians and soldiers? A call for general-officer talks with North Korea.
“I think a similar North Korean provocation could come at any time,” said President Lee immediately after the shelling. At least the South Korean leader got this right. Feeble responses from Washington and Seoul mean the North Koreans will definitely strike again. In fact, Pyongyang this week warned of additional attacks.
Additional attacks will mean more South Koreans will be killed. And with the drift to general conflict evident on the Korean peninsula, we can expect American forces there and in the region to be drawn into the fight.
Democracies are known for weak responses to the hostile acts of authoritarian states. This week, neither the White House nor the Blue House broke the pattern. They adopted policies that look like the ones we have witnessed before every major war in memory. We should not be surprised when conflict roils North Asia.