Korea On The Brink

North Korea is feeling backed into a corner these days.  First South Korea’s military provoked it by holding duly scheduled and openly announced military exercises from the island of Yeonpyeong Island, without even having the courtesy to move the island further away from North Korea’s maritime border first.  This prompted an artillery barrage from the Communist North, killing two South Korean marines.  The civilian residents of the island provoked North Korea by breathing, so it killed two of them as well.

Now the American aircraft carrier USS George Washington is on her way from Yokohama, Japan, for previously scheduled military exercises with South Korea.  These exercises were scheduled after the last time North Korea felt crowded, and responded with a torpedo into the South Korean warship Cheonan.  North Korea says these exercises by “trigger-happy” South Korea and the United States are pushing the peace-loving workers’ paradise to “the brink of war.”  A twitchy North Korea spent this morning conducting precisely the kind of artillery drills they said provoked the attack on Yeonpyeong.  Apparently such drills are only provocative when other people conduct them.

The analysts at view these hostile actions by North Korea in the context of territorial disputes throughout the region, including some disputes over island territory between Japan and North Korea’s patron China.  There’s also the matter of the “six-party talks” concerning North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.  The North is ratcheting up tensions in a bid to extract the highest price for whatever shabby concessions it might be willing to offer at these talks.  They also gain leverage through economic terrorism, as the advanced economies of Japan and South Korea fracture under regional tensions, while the Stone Age economy of North Korea’s starving population barely changes.  Bloomberg News reports the Japanese yen is down after the attacks, following a sharp decline in the value of the South Korean won.  The Asian markets are nervous, and nervous markets do not generate value.

The big question is, “What happens next?”  American military advisors are already on Yeonpyeong, and would be in the line of fire if the North shells the island again.  The George Washington battle group is a formidable force, including the mighty carrier herself, two guided missile cruisers, and two guided missile destroyers, plus perhaps a nuclear submarine or two.  If North Korea takes action against these powerful ships, it would face swift and devastating retaliation… but if they sit quietly and allow the George Washington group to conduct its scheduled exercise with South Korea, they look like a mad dog that just got a rolled-up newspaper across the snout.  The value of their terror currency on the international market depends on being taken seriously.  Control of a desperate populace depends on looking strong.  North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il is nervous about the coming transfer of power to his young son, Kim Jong Un, whose experience in oppressing captive people is limited. This family of deranged tyrants would be crazy to do something about the George Washington, but they look weak if they don’t.

The usual pattern of misbehavior by North Korea involves launching a bloody and unprovoked attack, suffering a blizzard of condemnation from the international community, and then retiring to the bargaining tables to collect their next round of concessions.  This time, they murdered innocent civilians along with innocent troops.  The entire region is slowly adjusting its posture into a defensive crouch, and hands are straying nervously to the hilts of swords.

North Korea’s basic strategy is the same one used by organized crime rings, in protection rackets around the world.  South Korea is an economic miracle.  It constructed one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas between Seoul and Inchon… and every inch of it lies within range of North Korean artillery.  The South has a lot to use.  Its feral neighbor can give it a lot of solid reasons to pay them off, instead of making them pay for acts of war. 

It’s difficult to judge the likely behavior of a desperate tyranny, whose control over their own populace has more to do with terrorizing than pleasing them.  Experience has demonstrated the international intelligence community has imperfect knowledge of the inner workings of totalitarian states.  Their collapse usually comes as a surprise.  Things might be worse beyond the DMZ than we have been led to believe.  The North Korean leadership may be willing to roll some fearful dice. 

They’ve already backed their Chinese benefactors into a corner, since the usual Chinese tactic of treating North Korean aggression as a questionable allegation is completely unworkable this time.  China’s heart clearly was not in their muttered calls for further investigation of the incident.  On the other hand, they don’t want to see the North Korean state collapse, and flood them with refugees, or be defeated in a battle that pushes Chinese influence out of the Pacific Rim.  South Korea doesn’t like waking up in the middle of the night to find its maniacal neighbor fogging the bedroom window glass with her hot, bloody breath.  China doesn’t want her moving into the attic with a few million of her sick and dying children.

Sunday’s scheduled exercises between American and South Korean forces will end the first stage of this crisis, one way or the other.  The North has essentially ordered Washington and Seoul to call off the exercises.  That isn’t going to happen. Previous behavior has suggested Pyongyang will swallow its belligerent rhetoric and wait for the civilized world to bring its checkbooks back to the six-party talks… but nothing quite like Yeonpyeong has ever happened before.  Everyone except the families of North Korea’s victims has a host of rational reasons to pretend the whole thing never happened.  No one knows if those communist artillery commanders are getting their orders from a rational chain of command.