Friday, April 5, 2013

Dismissing North Korea? Maybe not completely...

I have been watching the circus on the Korean peninsula with some dismay for a while already.  I am dismayed not only by the fact that both sides are acting rather irresponsibly, but also by what I consider a potentially dangerous dismissal of the North Korean threats.

First, and here I am going to alienate some folks with whom I otherwise sympathize, I do not lay the blame for the current crisis on the USA.  Yes, the USA did act in an arrogant and obnoxious way with the DPRK recently and, I would add, even not so recently.  Heck, the USA acts with condescending arrogance towards pretty much every country out there except Israel. And, of course, the USA policies towards the DPRK have been a mess since the Republicans torpedoed the "Agreed Framework" and accused Clinton of "appeasement".  So what?!

The USA's policies towards Iran ever since the Islamic Revolution have been no less arrogant, threatening and treacherous.  But unlike the "Great Leader" (Kim Il-sung) and the "Dear Leader" (Kim Jong-il) the Iranians went out of their way to avoid responding to these provocations and always took the necessary steps to de-escalate the situation.

There can be no excuse for the absolutely irresponsible stream of threats coming out of the DPRK recently.  Even worse, the North Koreans are actually *doing* things.  And yet, most people dismiss all this because they correctly believe that there is no way that the DPRK can prevail in a conflict against the USA, Taiwan, Japan and, of course, South Korea.  They also correctly believe that neither China nor Russia are going to help the DPRK in any way.  In fact, should a conflict actually start, we can expect both China and Russia to side with the USA.  This is all true, and yet history tells us the risk is real.

First, by taking all the 'symbolic' steps which could precede a war (movement of troops and missiles, 'official warnings', evacuation of embassies, etc.) the DPRK is actually taking the steps which would *really* precede a possible attack.  In other words, an effective bluff by definition carries the risk of being taken seriously.  If the North Koreans count on the Americans to ignore their threats they are making a big mistake,  Why?

Because the US military fully understands that while North Korea cannot 'win' a war against the South, they can inflict tremendous damage on South Korea and, especially, on Seoul which is literally within the reach of North Korean artillery strikes.  Besides a large, if antiquated, military, the DPRK has a very large special forces capability (25 special forces brigades in the ground forces, plus another 7000 naval special forces).  Such a large number of special forces is more than adequate to create a great deal of chaos and destruction.  So whether in the end the DPRK can win or not is immaterial as nobody can doubt that the DPRK can inflict a huge amount of death and destruction upon the South.  Hence, if the DPRK's bluff becomes convincing enough and an attack appears to be imminent, the US will have no other choice than to preempt it and attack first.

Second, it appears that the North Korean propaganda machine is in full swing promising an imminent war.  It is unclear to me how they could create such a sense of urgency, or even panic, and then simply back down.  This kind of bellicose rhetoric eventually acquires a forces of its own which can be very hard to contain.

Third, by ratcheting up the military readiness of its military the political leaders of the DPRK are putting more power in the hands of the military commanders and if only one of them decides to begin the hostilities the rest will have to follow.

Kim Jong-il
Finally, and while I disapprove of Western media style demonization campaigns against putatively "bad" leaders, it the case of the DPRK it really appears that the Dear Leader is every bit a crazy psychopaths has his daddy, the Great Leader.  The great weakness of any theory of deterrence is that is always assumes a rational actor.  But what if we are really dealing with absolutely insane maniacs here?

What is happening here is that the USA and its allies are in the situation of a cop facing a lunatic with a knife.  The lunatic cannot win, of course, but he can gravely injure the cop who, therefore, will have to open fire with his firearm as soon as the lunatic gets too close to him.

And, least I get accused of parroting the propaganda of the Western corporate media - let me say here that I have watched interviews of Russian experts who not only worked in the DPRK, but who even worked in delegations which had a direct contact with the Great Leader and the Dear Leader.  They all seem to think that at the very least these two are delusional megalomaniacs and that the DPRK is a hellhole of the worst kind.

I sure hope that the current escalation stops soon and that Russia and China will be able to convince the DPRK to cut this bellicose nonsense.  Neither country has, so far, evacuated its diplomats from Pyongyang even though the North Koreans have declared that they cannot ensure their safety after April 10th.  Hopefully they know something I don't.  My main problem is that I don't see any practical way to de-escalate this situation.

This will all probably end up without a full-scale war, but I would not be too inclined to dismiss such a possibility completely.

The Saker