So, what the hell was North Korea thinking when they launched an artillery barrage against a South Korean island? The possibilities are legion.
The first explanation being bandied around was that they’re preparing for Kim Jong Il to pass on the leadership mantle to his son, and it was a move to keep the North Korean military in line. The possibility of an outside threat — retaliation by South Korea and her allies (meaning us) — gives the country a rallying point, and a fear of instability. That improves Kim’s grip on power, and makes it easier for him to pass it along to his son.
My own theory was that this came so quickly after the latest revelation on just how far along North Korea’s nuclear program is. That is a long-term threat; in the big picture, the artillery strike is essentially meaningless. But it’s flashy, and sucks up all the attention at a key moment away from what North Korea doesn’t want people thinking and talking about.
Longtime Wizbang commenter JLawson brought up his own theory, based on the time of the year: North Korea has been flirting with famine for years now, and we’re heading into the winter. The attack gives the North Koreans a bargaining chip in demands for food aid: no more artillery attacks in the immediate future if we bribe them. They’ve used that blackmail in the past, and have been rewarded for it.
So, which is true?
I suspect all of them, to some degree. None of them are mutually exclusive. There’s nothing about one of them that eliminates — or even limits — the others. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that the “let’s shell the South” was a single solution to several problems.
Plus, it’s also a tangible reminder of the threat the North has held over the South for decades. Seoul, South Korea’s capitol, lies very close to the border. The North has a LOT of artillery aimed at it, and could devastate the city and kill a lot of South Koreans in very short order should they wish. To use the specific weapon that threatens Seoul sends an extra-special message.
And that is precisely why we should not pay the Danegeld here. It’s simple behavioral science, of the sort anyone who has ever had to deal with a child (or a childish misbehaving adult) should recognize: if you reward bad behavior by giving the miscreant what they want, you have pretty much guaranteed that you will get more bad behavior in the future. Because you have shown that it works.
Earlier this year, North Korea sank a warship of the South Korean navy, killing 46 sailors. That was a greater death toll than the two killed by the artillery barrage, but more plausibly deniable: they could argue (unconvincingly) that it wasn’t them; it was an accident, a mistake by the ship’s crew, a stray mine, or another nation trying to make them look bad. And they got away with it without any real consequences.
The artillery barrage, though — that’s utterly undeniable. That’s an open attack. They can argue that they were provoked, that South Korea fired first, or something, but there’s no mistaking who fired the rounds that killed the two South Koreans.
They wouldn’t do that unless they were convinced they could do so with impunity — that not only would they not be punished for it, but it would help them achieve their goals in the long run.
In that sense, the sinking of the Cheonan can be viewed as a test case — to see if they could make such a blatantly open attack without fear of repercussions. And they did.
He Who Needs No Linkage is talking about a full nuclear retaliation against North Korea, should they continue the provocations. I disagree with the good professor. For one, he’s talking about what to do if they keep it up; I think they’ve done enough already. For another, I’m not quite ready to advocate pushing the button.
No, I’m standing by what I’ve called for since the sinking of the Cheonan: some very specific counterstrikes, whacking North Korea across the nose with a very deniable newspaper. Hit them hard enough to make certain they know they’ve been hit, but in such a way as we can say “who, us?” with a shred of plausibility.
Moves such as sinking a few of their submarines — that’s a hell of a hard thing to prove. First, they’d have to find the wrecks. Next, they’d have to examine them to find evidence that they were lost due to enemy action. Then they’d have to prove they were sunk by US weapons. Finally, they’d have to show that those weapons were fired by a US warship. And that’s all very expensive and very technically demanding — two things the NorKs are very lacking in.
Some carefully-anonymized cruise missiles could also cause problems. Say, an oil pipeline or railroad bridge should suddenly experience a catastrophic (and explosively-aided) failure. That would also send an appropriate message.
The North Koreans are playing a dangerous game, and so far it’s winning for them. We need to show them that it’s far, far more dangerous than they think it is — or they’ll keep playing. A few precision strikes now could head off an open war.