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What's Next? Monitoring the Korean Peninsula

The artillery barrage against Yeonpyeong island, the first North Korean attack since the end of the Korean War than a half century ago to kill South Korean civilians, calls into question many of the assumptions that have guided security planning in northeast Asia, most notably, that the threat of massive retaliation prevents either side from engaging in foolhardy behavior. But this incident, combined with the sinking of the Cheonan earlier this year, appears to be a test on Pyongyang's part to see whether or not South Korea is willing to risk its considerable prosperity to defend this proposition. It also tests whether or not a key assumption of American strategic planning: that the U.S. could withdraw forces from the Korean peninsula and deploy its resources and attention elsewhere--notably in the Middle East--but could still adequately respond if necessary--still holds true.

I observed (in comments made at World Politics Review) that Washington and Seoul must both now do some soul-searching:

"Do we still want to honor the commitments that we made during the Cold War with the same expenditure of blood and treasure? South Korea, in turn, is grappling with its own dilemma. Having chosen to pursue economic prosperity in the shadow of the North Korean volcano, whose past dormancy these many years is no guarantee of future quiet, Seoul must now decide whether or not to risk what it has built to defend its red lines. Should South Korea respond with force to attacks like the sinking of the Cheonan and now the artillery salvo this week, thereby inviting the possibility of major and sustained destruction and loss? Or are such provocations to be swallowed, condemned rhetorically but otherwise left unpunished? If these incidents were a test by the North Koreans of the South's resolve -- and of Washington's willingness to become involved -- will the lack of a forceful response be seen as a prudent measure, or as weakness?"

The nomination of retired joint chiefs chairman General Kim Kwan-jin as the new defense minister signals an effort to reform Korea's national security apparatus, and particularly to make the military more nimble and effective in responding to new security challenges. One of the criticisms of the response of the South Korean military during the attack on the island was that the South Koreans had always prepared to repel an amphibious assault--and were not expecting a sustained artillery barrage. Breaking old established "standard operating procedures" to deal with unexpected threats--and to shore up defenses that might have been allowed to slide under the assumption that no war meant a kind of peace--will be part of his agenda.

While the U.S. side would certainly like China to play a much greater role in hleping to tap down the crisis, part of America's credibility with Beijing rests on China believing that in the absence of a diplomatic settlement, the United States would be prepared to fully honor all of its defense commitments to South Korea, even with the contigency operations in Afghanistan and Iraq--and that the Obama administration would be prepared to make the case to the American public. The dispatch of the George Washington is a start--but the Korean crisis will have to occupy the center stage of White House policymaking for the near future, even if the immediate crisis can be dialed back.

Blogging from Beijing, the Telegraph's Peter Foster had this to say--and I'll conclude with his take:

Will North Korea respond again? The likelihood, on past form, is not. But while we often assume that the North knows "the limits of the game", in the current political environment, with the inexperienced Kim Jong-un trying to prove he's a worthy successor to his father, Kim Jong-il, it is possible the rules of the game have changed considerably.

We have grown used to the North's bellicose threats, but if Pyongyang does react this weekend, as it is threatening to, then it seems certain that South Korea will have to make a more significant military response. If that happens, the game will be instantly taken to a whole new level.

This, argues the US and its allies, is why China absolutely MUST get on and talk some sense into crazy Pyongyang. But equally, it is why China argues that Washington and Seoul MUST be more flexible, less intransigent and talk to Pyongyang before something really ugly happens. (If it does, needless to say, both sides will yell: "don't say we didn't warn you".)

This is a dialogue of the deaf in which Chinese pragmatism meets American principle with North Korea, the toad in the Garden, pouring malicious poison in between.

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