More South Koreans Will Die. Maybe Americans Too

“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.