By Andrei Lankov
The present author has been undertaking North Korean studies (and Pyongyang watching) for 25 years, and is accustomed to the periodic media hype which is produced by news from North Korea.
The hype is predictable. Every time the Koreas sign an official document or, perhaps, hold a summit, the international media begins to write about a ``major step towards unification.” Reports about the North Korean regime relaxing its control over markets is bound to produce headlines along the lines of, ``North Korea finally starting Chinese-style reforms.” And, of course, every exchange of fire on the DMZ or NLL is heralded as a sign that this time the ``Koreas are on the brink of war.”
Usually, such statements should be greeted with a yawn. No, summits and treaties do not mean that the Koreas are moving towards unification. No, Pyongyang has no intention to reform its economy. No, clashes on the border are either incidents or part of a complicated diplomatic game, but chances for such a clash to develop into a war are zero.
Or are they? In recent weeks, for the first time in my rather long professional life, I am not so sure. It seems that this time the situation in Korea is more fraught with danger than usual.
Over this year, the North Koreans staged two major attacks. In March they torpedoed a warship, and in November they shelled an island. The rationale behind these operations is clear: They demonstrate that they are capable of creating problems for any South Korean government which does not provide them with sufficient aid.
The Pyongyang strategists know that the tensions are bad for the South Korean economy which is very dependent on the international markets. The headlines of ``Koreas being on the brink of war” are not good for business. On top of that, the South Korean voter nowadays is remarkably indifferent to North Korean problems and still expects that ROK government will avoid unnecessary confrontations. So, the North Korean strategists reason staging occasional shootings is the best way to penalize a government which is not paying the Dane-geld. Even if the current government remains stubborn, chances are that economic troubles and the general sense of unease will contribute toward its electoral defeat, so its successor will be more ready to compromise.
An additional dimension is added by the ongoing succession. Kim Jong-un, the world’s youngest four-star general, wants to show his toughness ― much like his father did in the 1970s.
Therefore, we can be pretty sure: since the South Korean government is not going to yield, another major provocation will take place soon. Maybe, another artillery shooting, or perhaps a submarine attack or even a commandos raid ― we do not know.
However, the mood in South Korea has changed ― unfortunately, I would say. Now the public wants revenge, and the military is eager to fight, to retaliate mightily next time. This is understandable, but this is dangerous, too.
Like it or not, such retaliation will be politically useless. Perhaps the ROK forces are capable of wiping out dozens of the North Korean guns. But this ``victory” will have no impact on North Korea’s behavior. The North Korean leaders can sacrifice as many North Korean soldiers and sailors as necessary, and the scions of the Pyongyang elite never serve in the military (they attend Swiss schools and shop in Paris boutiques instead).
It is sometimes argued that such a military disaster will be humiliating for the regime. This is not the case either: the regime completely controls the mass media, so even the most humiliating defeat would be presented as a great victory, a new triumph of the North Korean arms. Only a handful of generals will learn the ugly truth.
If anything, a powerful strike which is much hoped for by the public, will damage the South Korean economy. In late November the world media claimed that a war was ``about to erupt” in Korea. In case of a retaliatory strike, especially if the North stages a counter-counterstrike, it will be reported that the war already began, with predictable grave consequences for the South Korean economy. This unavoidable result of retaliation will annoy the same public which now is yearning for revenge and they will turn back to the excessively bellicose government.
And, of course, there is a real ― if minor ― chance that an exchange of strikes will get out of control and escalate into a war. Neither side wants this, for sure, but a chain of strikes, counterstrikes and counter-counterstrikes can develop into a major slaughter within days if not hours.
Does it mean that South Koreans should turn the other cheek? Not necessarily, but it is much better to do what South Korea has done for decades, even when they faced far more serious attacks _ like a raid on the Blue House in 1968 or the bombing of an airliner in 1987. Back then, they essentially did nothing. And the results are here to see _– compare the rich and free South with the impoverished and regimented North. It is time to be calm again, and not submit to childish dreams of ``revenge.”
Professor Andrei Lankov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now teaches at Kookmin University in Seoul. He can be reached at email@example.com.