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

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.”