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

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.