Beating the War Drums in Korea

Most of the time, political rhetoric doesn’t matter much. Either it’s for a domestic audience, or it’s a way of letting off steam in international relations. I wouldn’t want to bet that the rhetoric coming out of the two Koreas is so innocent, however. Relations between the two have been deteriorating since the North sank a South Korean naval vessel back in 2010 and then shelled an island, killing South Korean citizens. There was some hope that the inauguration of the new president Park Geun-hye would lead to some type of new approach to the North, though many worried that Madame Park would be too eager to shift Seoul back towards the unrealistic Sunshine Policy that failed during the 1990s.

If anything, the war of words between Pyongyang and Seoul is worse than under hardline former president Lee Myung-bak. Of course, young North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has continued the family tradition of provocation and aggression, launching ballistic missiles and setting off nuclear explosions. That has led to more U.N. sanctions talk, this time with China supposedly on board. The result has been the rhetorical equivalent of Defcon One. Last week, Pyongyang threatened to end the armistice that has held on the peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953 (no peace treaty was ever signed, and so the two sides formally remain at war). That would be a grave change to the status quo, literally indicating that hostilities had once again commenced — even if no attack was actually undertaken. From North Korea’s twisted legal logic, the U.N. sanctions are a form of warfare, so they are justified in responding; moreover, having given warning of the end of the armistice, they could “legally” launch military attacks on the South.

In response, the South Korean military warned it would target North Korea’s “command leadership,” including, presumably, Kim Jong Un himself. The South’s fear is that young Kim, relatively untested yet brashly confident of his country’s missile forces and nuclear capability, may wind up authorizing limited attacks, confident the South won’t respond. Thus, the rhetorical one-upsmanship. 

The real danger here is that the two sides may talk themselves into conflict, even war. President Park cannot begin her six-year term by seeming to cower before the North, while Kim has had a string of successes that make him as “successful” as his dictator father and grandfather before him; however, he may not have the savvy his forebears had in pulling back just before going over the edge. Mix in nationalist passions in both countries (usually directed against Japan, but able to pivot against each other when necessary), and an itchy trigger finger along the Demilitarized Zone, and the potential for conflict grows alarmingly large.

That, of course, would bring in the U.S., which still has over 27,000 troops pledged to come to the aid of the South, along with the airpower of the U.S. Air Force and Navy. Word on the street is that Washington talked Seoul down in 2010, when former President Lee wanted to strike back in some way for the North’s unprovoked aggression. This time, I’d wager it will be nearly impossible to prevent a new president from proving her bona fides if Kim Jong-un is stupid enough to actually launch an attack that winds up costing innocent South Korean life. In short, watch the rhetoric levels to see if they decline a bit to “normal” hatred, or if they seem to moving into ever more provocative territory. Before long, Washington may have to field a call from Seoul’s Blue House, asking President Obama if he is prepared to back a South Korean military response to the North’s madness. 

Michael Auslin — Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he specializes in Asian regional security and political issues.

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