Uneasy quietness on peninsula
By Andrei Lankov
Early this year, this author was quite anxious about the future of South-North Korean relations and, frankly, even about the future of peace on the Korean Peninsula. The situation was clearly moving in the wrong direction, so for the first time in decades, an escalation into a full-scale war appeared possible (albeit clearly avoidable).
In the past year two major military provocations by the North have been unsettling. Frankly, the oft-used word ``provocation” is misleading in this case: North Korean policy planners were not going to provoke the South into any irrational or excessive response. They just wanted to show that they cannot be ignored or, to be more precise, that the price of ignoring them is higher than the price of providing them with aid and other concessions.
What the North wants to achieve is clear: North Korean strategists want Seoul (and for that matter Washington) to restart generous and essentially unconditional aid programs which had been discontinued in 2008. Contrary to common perception, they don’t need this aid and money because they are desperate and on the brink of collapse, but rather because they feel increasingly uneasy about their growing dependence on China, now their only sponsor.
The South Korean government has not bowed to the pressure and did not restart aid after the attacks. This is a laudable decision but one should consider that the refusal to interact with the North may mean that new attacks are likely to occur.
Seoul politicians have convinced themselves that the uncharacteristic quietness of the North is a result of their tough and uncompromising approach. Indeed, after the Yeonpyeong-do attack last November, there was no shortage of bellicosity on the southern side. And it seems for a change, South Korean politicians and generals are indeed serious when they say that massive retaliatory counter-strikes will be implemented in the case of another North Korean attack. It seems they believe that North Korea is cowed by their willingness to take on North Korean naval bases, military headquarters, artillery positions or whatever military planners will designate as targets.
But this is an illusion (probably a dangerous one). The South Korean military still cannot damage any assets which are of real value to North Korean decision makers. South Korean strikes can probably kill a number of helpless North Korean soldiers and officers (maybe even a disposable general or two). But the lives of these people are of no value for the tiny Pyongyang-based elite. After all, this is the elite whose members merely a decade ago sacrificed the lives of at least half a million people during the famine. The loss of military equipment is also not a big deal for North Korean military planners who understand that their rusty, old tanks are not going to win a major war anyway.
The only thing North Koreans are afraid of is a major war which they have no chance of winning. This is exactly the reason why North Koreans have refrained from provocations the past few months. American military interventions in Libya and the sorry fate of Osama bin Laden have demonstrated to the North that President Obama is not afraid to shoot-to-kill. They might be afraid (mistakenly perhaps) that a new large-scale provocation might lead to a full-scale U.S. intervention and this is the only thing they really fear.
However, this fear of a possible attack is not going to last, especially if Colonel Gaddafi and his supporters manage to stay in control of Western Libya. Sooner or later, the usual calculations will be taken seriously again and North Korean policy planners will assume that a large-scale U.S. intervention is not likely.
Once this happens, North Korean generals will probably return to the plans they, in all probability, discussed in January and February, and resume preparations for another small-scale military operation. Contrary to what Seoul’s leaders want to believe, such operations are a low risk initiative for Pyongyang. In the worst case scenario, the North will lose some marginal assets while in the best case scenario they will acquire aid from South Korea, which will greatly enhance their strategic position in dealing with the outside world.
Of course, this is a gamble. It is possible that a chain of new ``provocations” will indeed wear down South Korean public opinion, making the South Korean government restart aid to the North. But it is also possible that South Korean public opinion, already unusually hostile toward the North, will become even more so and already frozen economic relations will become even more ossified. Nevertheless, speaking objectively and cynically, for North Korea’s policy planners the entire game makes perfect sense: losses are small whilst the gains might be big.
We should not therefore be misled by the current quietness on the Korean Peninsula. The refusal of Seoul and Washington to deal with North Korea comes at a significant price. Sooner or later this price will have to be paid.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.