By Andrei Lankov
The North Koreans did it again. In March they sank a South Korean warship, which in terms of the loss of human lives was the largest military disaster the South Korean navy suffered in decades.
Now, for the first time since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War, the North Korean artillery shelled South Korean territory, killing soldiers and civilians.
The political motivation behind these strikes is clear: the North Koreans demonstrate that if they are ignored and not provided with enough unconditional aid and other giveaways, they are capable of creating much trouble.
There is a public outrage in South Korea, albeit not as much as people unfamiliar with Korean politics would probably imagine ― for many Koreans, such an incident is merely the price to pay for living next to a very peculiar state. At any rate, the public expects the government to do something.
Indeed, what can be done? Alas, the frank answer is the same as it was the case after Cheonan sinking last spring ― that is, “nothing.” Indeed, all conceivable actions by Seoul are likely to have no impact on the situation or will even make it worse.
The diplomatic solution is not going to work. The quasi-allies of North Korea, China and Russia, already expressed their disapproval of possible tough actions of Seoul and essentially suggested that doing nothing is the only diplomatic solution they would accept.
So, without Chinese participation, chances to build up the international pressure on Pyongyang are zero ― and, at any rate, Pyongyang has demonstrated that it can easily ignore such pressure indefinitely.
Large-scale war is out of question, completely and unconditionally.
The major vulnerability is the Seoul metropolitan area, a home to 24 million people, roughly half of all South Koreans. The huge city is located within the shooting range of the North Korean artillery, with some 250 pieces being capable of hitting targets as far south as Suwon, and many smaller pieces which can bombard the northern and central areas of the capital.
Even if these guns are silenced in the first hours of the conflict (a big if), they will still inflict huge damage on the city, killing tens of thousands civilians. The operations of the North Korean special forces will wreak havoc in the rear, while an advance of the South Korean army toward Pyongyang will be difficult and bloody.
In other words, even though South Korea is almost certain to win, it will emerge from the war with a ruined economy and also saddled with the need to reconstruct the dirty-poor North ― the need which terrifies South Korean even now, when their economy is doing very well.
The impossibility of war is the reason why South Korea’s pain threshold is so high. Even if tomorrow (god forbid!) the North Korean artillery fire few dozen shells at downtown Seoul, or if a North Korean fighter jets shoot down a civilian airliner right over Incheon International Airport, this will not lead to a war. Few such bombardments ― or a couple of air attacks ― might produce such effect, but one is clearly not enough.
An attack on the military installations in North Korea is not an option as well. South Korean forces can wipe out few coastal batteries, but this will only make situation worse.
To start with, lives of the common soldiers and sailors in North Korea cost nothing, and the children of the elite do not serve in the navy (they shop in Swiss boutiques instead). The parents of the dead soldiers also will not have any political clout.
It is often stated that a show of South Korea’s military superiority will at least make the regime lose face, but this is not the case either. Pyongyang rulers control the media completely, so they can easily hide the scale of the military disaster or even present it as a great victory.
At the same time, the retaliatory strikes will enhance the political and economic effect which was intended by the North Korean strategists from the very beginning.
They staged the recent incidents because they know that news about “tensions mounting in Korea” are bad for the markets and hence are certain to damage South Korea’s economic performance which depends on its international reputation for stability.
The North Korean strategists calculate that South Korean voters who do not care that much about the North, would be annoyed by the economic problems and general sense of tensions, so they will use their ballot power to exercise the pressure on the government, demanding a softer line toward Pyongyang.
Needless to say, retaliatory strikes will simply increase tensions, thus aggravating the political and economic damage to the country (and to the government in power).
So, the only conceivable (but also useless) reply is tough talk and a show of military power. This is also somewhat dangerous since it will increase the likelihood of incidental clashes on the border. But one has to understand: the government has to show that it is doing something when actually nothing can be done.
Prof. Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.