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OK, Now We’re Worried

South Korea has vowed to shoot first and ask questions later if its forces are provoked by North Korea, as angry rhetoric on the Korean peninsula escalated dramatically today. “If there is any provocation…there should be a strong response in initial combat without any political considerations,” President Park Geun-hye said on Monday. According to the FT, “Her comments suggest that Seoul will be less tolerant of Pyongyang than under Lee Myung-bak, the former president who was criticised for not responding more forcefully when North Korea sank a South Korean ship and shelled an island.”

VM is largely unmoved by the ritualistic drumbeat of hate from North Korea. Spewing threats and bile is pretty much the norm for the world’s least attractive regime. We generally share the White House’s view: it’s serious, but the Norks have a history of empty hostility. South Korea, on the other hand, is a serious country. When its president tells the military to, essentially, shoot first and ask questions afterward in response to any northern aggression, the potential for trouble is up.

So President Park’s comments concern us a little more than usual. It was Park’s predecessor who amended the South’s rules of engagement to allow the military to retaliate against the North first and tell the government about it after. Still, Park—the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the general who seized power in a military coup and ruled South Korea for 18 years as President for Life—is widely considered to be holding a harder line against the Norks than her predecessor. This morning, she made it very clear that she, too, will brook no aggression from the North.

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  • Nick M.

    One would think that the incidents in the past few weeks has got to be worrying China. Not only is this right in their front yard, but this will attract more attention, intelligence assets, and possibly military forces to the region. Not good for a nation that currently needs to rely on this region to be quiet for them to try and get a favorable resolution to the disputed islands issue.

  • Philopoemen

    I’m surprised to see SK getting so belligerent. They have the most to lose in any confrontation with NK. If the world does go to war with NK (and wins, of course), the South will end up with millions of hapless uneducated peasant immigrants. Hardly an appealing prospect.

    • bigfire

      The Sunshine policy of the previous South Korean administration went precisely nowhere. This is a new administration that was elected to use a different approach.

      Neither China nor South Korea wants to have a total collapse of the North Korean regime. but what other choice do they have?

      • Philopoemen

        what other choice do they have?

        Russia should fix it – after all, this was their fault.

    • BrianFrankie

      “hapless uneducated peasant immigrants”?
      For shame. Honestly, take a moment of reflection before writing something like this. These are human beings you are talking about.
      Granted, they are poor, and generally have been horribly abused, miseducated, starved, tortured by their obscene excuse for a government. Yet they are people, and deserve the respect and dignity of people anywhere. Anyone with the slightest compassion or charity would leap at the chance to help them better their lives.
      Further, they are the countrymen and, in many cases, the family, of the South Koreans.
      South Korea does not, I am sure, underestimate the difficulties of integrating 22 million North Koreans into the modern world. Nor do they relish the unrelenting hard work and associated costs. Yet I am certain that, if offered the opportunity, they would prove both willing and capable of doing so. And I would hope the United States would provide substantial help in the task. You don’t need to be one of Via Meadia’s utopian Wilsonians to see the powerful convergence of strategic and moral calculus in the situation.
      The only real question in the equation is how do we get from our present precarious state to the future unified Korea while keeping the North Korean conventional and nuclear arsenals (mostly) holstered.

      • Philopoemen

        Thank you for the reminder that they are in fact human beings. I was not aware.

        Bleeding-heart-ism aside, one way or another this will be an enormous strain on South Korea. You think the reunification of Germany was dramatic? That was nothing. The East Germans were light-years ahead of North Koreans. Integration will be exceedingly difficult and expensive, in time, money, and effort.

        • D.W. Drang

          A couple of thoughts, based on two decades as a Korean linguist in the US Army: The ROKs are quite aware of the burden that they would be assuming if they were to reunify with the north. They studied the effects of the reunification of the Germanys carefully, and were not happy with what they saw. They are also aware of the fact that they may not have the option of letting their brothers, sisters, and cousins starve much longer.

          Also, President Park’s mother was murdered by a north Korean assassin. So she may — probably does — feel compassion for the people of north Korea, but she has little love for the north Korean government…

  • Mark Michael

    One thought is that there are 22 million N. Koreans who’ve lived in abject poverty for 60 years as near slaves in their own country. Allegedly, millions have starved to death over the history of N. Korea. Presumably, N. Korea’s artillery across the DMZ can reach Seoul and destroy much of the city. I don’t know how many of its citizens S. Korea could evacuate from Seoul before they were killed in the artillery barrage. I also presume that S. Korea has ways to counterattack those artillery emplacements, although one wonders how reliable either side’s military assets would be in a real fight. Military equipment does deteriorate over time unless rigorously maintained, and it’s been 60 years since the 1953 armistice was signed.

    Anyway, I think we should give at least half of our sympathies for the 22 million benighted souls enslaved in N. Korea and not totally focused on a cautious, peace-at-almost-any-price foreign policy posture. But then, I’m an old DOD-employee type who believes the efficacy of force in foreign relations.

    • BrianFrankie


      I certainly agree with your stance regarding the moral imperative to relieve the North Korean people. A just world would not allow the North Korean regime to exist.

      But… as always, the devil is in the details. The practical difficulties are enormous, and one must ask what price we can bear to eliminate such evil. I suggest you read Scott Stossel’s article in the Jul/Aug 2005 issue of the Atlantic on a North Korean war game they conducted:

      Even the hawks concede civilian casualties would likely be at least 100,000 in Seoul, and could easily exceed that if North Korea unleashes chemical or biological munitions believed to be kept ready at artillery sites near the DMZ. Military casualties would likely exceed civilian casualties. North Korean military capabilities and weapons are very inferior to US and South Korean abilities, so the war (assuming no Chinese intervention for NK) would end pretty rapidly, but that is not really the point. NK did not build their capabilities to defeat the US and SK on the battlefield, but rather to hold large populations hostage and quickly inflict mass casualties, so as to deter initiation of operations against the regime. Sort of a poor man’s MAD. It is part and parcel of the overall nastiness of the regime.

      So if we cannot bear the damage NK weapons can inflict, and we cannot bear the existence of the malevolent NK regime or their continued production of nuclear weapons, what are our remaining choices?
      I don’t see any really good ones. The only plan I see that has a remote chance of getting us out of the current mess is to work closely with China and SK to develop a plan utilising economic, conventional military, and clandestine operations to force the rapid collapse of NK. We’ll need to make considerable concessions to China to get them to buy in – no US conventional forces north of the 38th parallel, withdrawal of US forces from and denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula within a few years, and some other concessions of importance. Would we be willing to give enough to make it worth while for China? I have my doubts. But if we don’t, I can’t see how the Korean situation ends well – it is just going to get uglier and uglier, with more and more nuclear weapons floating around.

  • Lorenz Gude

    Having just finished The Coldest Winter, David Halberstam’s 2007 history of the Korean war, it is remarkable how little things have changed in terms of the relationship between North and South. And how much has changed between the two halves of the same country. One has gone nowhere except in airless paranoia protected by WMDs and the other has had incredible economic success.

    There must be enough knowledge of the outside world in the North to know that the official line is not true, but the degree of mind control must be remarkable nonetheless. Compare the outpourings of grief at the death of their Dear Leaders to the way a crowd of Roumanians were able to turn on Ceausescu and bring him down. Something is very different in the culture of North Korea than in the West – where many economically hollowed out despotic Communist regimes fell quite peacefully. In one sense the Norks have found a way to perpetuate a ridiculously failed regime better even than say Mugabe or for that matter Chavez or Castro.

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