The international community wasted no time drafting Strongly Worded Letters to condemn North Korea’s wanton attacks on the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, declared, “It is necessary to immediately end all strikes. There is a colossal danger which must be avoided. Tensions in the region are growing.”
Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister of Germany, pronounced himself “very worried by the North Korean artillery fire on South Korea.” He pledged German support and sympathy for South Korea, and added, “I hope in this tense situation that all parties will act in a cool-headed manner.” Translation: message received, North Korea. Please don’t kill anyone else for a few months, except your own citizens, of course.
Indonesia, the European Union, and NATO also called on both sides to “exercise maximum restraint.” This is pretty much the global reaction in a nutshell, aside from China, which still wants further “confirmation” before it jumps to any rash conclusions and castigates anyone. The Chinese did go so far as to declare this incident proof it was “imperative now to resume the six-party talks,” at which four of the parties had better hang on to their wallets.
The angriest reaction thus far has come from Japan, which seems more visibly upset than South Korea about the whole affair. At least, chief Cabinet secretary Yoshito Sengoku is. In a Tokyo news conference, he called the North Korean attack “unforgiveable,” which is one of those words the Japanese really mean when they use it. Just yesterday, Sengoku was quoted in the Singapore Straits Times calling North Korea’s new uranium enrichment plant “absolutely unacceptable from the point of view of Japan’s security.” Lest you dismiss Sengoku as a loose cannon, the Wall Street Journal reports Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan has ordered his cabinet to “step up information gathering and prepare for emergencies.” North Korea is not likely to respond warmly to enhanced Japanese intelligence gathering, so preparing for emergencies is a wise precaution.
Japan has good reason to be nervous when North Korea throws one of its periodic tantrums, and steps up to the brink of war. In April of 2009, the Korean communists fired a Taepodong-2 missile over northern Japan, making it clear they have the ability to damage the Japanese homeland. The large American military presence deployed on Japanese soil could make them an early target in a wider conflict. Even if they were never struck by North Korean ordinance, the Japanese would have to deal with a substantial influx of refugees from the conflict.
The U.S. and South Korea have few good options for dealing with the belligerent North. President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea is quoted by CNN as saying “the provocation at this time can be regarded as an invasion of South Korean territory” which can only be stopped by “enormous retaliation.” There would be no other kind of retaliation. The South Korean capital of Seoul lies within range of hundreds of North Korean guns, dug into place through decades of fortification. The opening hour of any conflict would see horrendous damage inflicted on Seoul, which has a population of over 10 million people. Throw in the port city of Incheon and the suburbs, and you’re talking about 25 million civilians for North Korea to murder. A good fifty thousand of them are American civilians.
There’s no way to fight a limited engagement with North Korea when it has so many soft, juicy targets within easy reach. That’s assuming North Korea’s patron China would permit any such engagement in the first place. We should also remember the North is believed to have at least half a dozen functional nuclear warheads. They have a lot of options for a horrific response to a failed “decapitation” strike directed at their leadership, and a history that suggests they wouldn’t hesitate to exercise all of those options simultaneously. The entire point of the belligerence they displayed this morning was reminding South Korea, the United States, and the world how dangerous they are.
The only way to take down North Korea without an appalling cost in innocent human life would be a strategy that neutralizes almost all of their artillery on the De-Militarized Zone at once, and prevents deployment of their weapons of mass destruction. It’s hard to imagine a conventional operation that could do it, or a global situation that would allow a sufficient strike with unconventional munitions, short of North Korea using them first. That’s why a couple of South Korean troops died from a terminal case of geopolitics this morning, and no one can do anything except offer condolences, trudge back to the bargaining table, and ask the killers what they want.