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Will North Korean aggression be answered by the South?

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Pyongyang Crosses Seoul’s “Line in the Sand”

Will North Korean aggression be answered by the South?

Member states of the world community basically fall into two groups:  Those acting responsibly to maintain global order and those acting irresponsibly, independent of any such concerns. 

Inevitably, the act of an irresponsible rogue state comes into direct conflict with the interests of a responsible one.  When this happens, the responsible state must determine whether the rogue state’s act has been so egregious so as to “cross the line” beyond which a responsible state cannot be pushed, lest it allow its sancrosanct interests to be wantonly violated. 

Historically, responsible states making this determination have responded in one of two ways:  (1) answering the rogue state’s egregious act with an in-kind response or (2) ignoring it, despite its severity, choosing instead to re-draw the line in the sand beyond which it will not be pushed.  The latter is appeasement – a process which, while effective in delaying war, rarely works to avoid it.

Nowhere has appeasement been exercised to an extreme more so than on the Korean peninsula.  Within the next few days, Seoul will have to decide whether Pyongyang has finally crossed the line beyond which South Korea will not be further pushed or whether Seoul again will back down.          

Seoul’s investigation into the March 26 sinking of the warship Cheonan, conducted with international assistance, is concluding.  All evidence is pointing to Pyongyang as the responsible party for its loss and 46 of its crewmembers.  An internal explosion has been ruled out and South Korean intelligence had warned the navy weeks beforehand that North Korean mini-submarines might be looking to torpedo a South Korean ship.

South Korean military intelligence has already reported to President Lee Myung-bak that a heavy torpedo—with which all North Korean submarines are armed—was involved.  Another possibility being explored is that it was a kamikaze mini-submarine whose crew initiated an explosion near the Cheonan.  In either case, recovery of the remnants of a torpedo or a mini-submarine will be key to the investigation.

While South Korean authorities have been tight-lipped about technical evidence collected, ample circumstantial evidence exists. 

First, Pyongyang has a long track record of committing unprovoked acts of aggression against the South over the past several decades.  These have included assassination attempts against the South Korean president, blowing up a South Korean passenger plane, kidnapping South Korean citizens, etc.  Each act has been followed by Seoul simply re-drawing the line that would provoke it into taking military action.

Second, a confrontation between South and North Korean ships last November resulted in humiliation for Pyongyang as one of its ships was set on fire and three sailors killed.  North Korean military leaders vowed “a holy retaliatory war” against the South.  The humiliation was evident as North Korean four-star Gen. Kim Myong-guk, under whose ultimate command the ship fell, was demoted to three-stars.  A photograph of the general in the North Korean press after the March 26 incident shows him wearing a re-instated fourth star.

Third, a reason exists for North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to seek heightened tensions with the South at this time. Public outrage is still smoldering in North Korea over the government’s sudden announcement last December its currency was being devalued—an action designed to crack down on its growing free-market economy. 

Citizens were ordered to exchange old won notes for new ones at a rate of one to 100.   But last month after wide-spread protests, the architect of this disastrous currency reform, Finance Minister Pak Nam-gi, was executed.  The execution failed to quell public discontent, so Kim Jong-il needs a distraction for his people—and creating another international incident with South Korea serves this purpose.

Fourth, Kim Jong-il’s sudden visit to China—his first in several years—followed the Cheonan sinking.  Supposedly, Kim Jong-il, in a rare conciliatory remark, told Chinese president Hu Jintao he is ready to return to the stalled six-party nuclear disarmament talks. Undoubtedly, the Chinese also see Pyongyang’s hand as being involved in the Cheonan sinking and sought to pressure the North Koreans to diminish tensions on the peninsula by making such an offer.

Korea analysts suggest a finding by investigators of North Korean involvement in Cheonan’s loss will not result in military action by the South.  Instead, Seoul—not wishing to further impact its economic woes—will look instead to an ineffectual UN to take action on its behalf.  Seoul knows the UN, which already has proven incapable of derailing Iran’s nuclear train, will be similarly incapable of deterring North Korean aggression. 

By failing to take action on its own against Pyongyang—relying on the UN to do so—Seoul effectively opts to re-draw yet another line in the sand beyond which it (supposedly) will not be pushed.  If so, it will only be one the North eventually crosses again.

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Written By

Lieutenant Colonel James Zumwalt is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the 1989 intervention into Panama and Desert Storm. An author, speaker and business executive, he also currently heads a security consulting firm named after his father -- Admiral Zumwalt & Consultants, Inc. He has also been cited in numerous other books and publications for unique insights based on his research on the Vietnam war, North Korea (a country he has visited ten times and about which he is able to share some very telling observations) and Desert Storm.

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