Sunday, April 25, 2010
In matters of war and peace, one of the most difficult questions to get right is correctly calibrating the response to a provocation. A provocation that results in a significant number of dead sailors is even more vexing. This is the dilemma faced by the South Koreans as it becomes increasingly obvious that the Cheonan was deliberately attacked and sunk by the North. Of course, any attempt at trying to fathom the "why" and "why now" questions that surround this attack will end up circular, for there is no explanation for the actions of the Kim Jong Il regime except that they are the actions of the regime - there is no external logic.
This is going to be very difficult for the South Koreans to game out. Given Kim's tendency for hysterical overreaction, it's difficult to assess what the result of any South Korean response might be, and of course the possibility of all-out war can never be discounted. But unlike many other cases, there is also a definite, measurable risk involved in doing nothing. SOMETHING made the North Korean regime decide to attack the Cheonan, and whatever might be the basis for that decision is still at play, at least in the minds of Kim's inner circle. No one can be certain of the status of Kim's health, and his impending death leaves him with two challenges that he'd wish to address before passing - his legacy and his succession. One might think that Kim would not want to go gently into that good night with the geopolitical status quo on the Korean Peninsula unchanged throughout his entire reign. And he also knows there are powerful political forces in play that might alter or undermine his chosen successor, and he'd likely want to do what he can to effectively cement Kim Jong-un's position as the next Dear Leader.
If the South takes ANY military action, they run the risk of the most brutal of unintended consequences, and with the firepower the North has arrayed around Seoul, a bustling modern city of over 20 million people, the costs of a miscalculation are horrific to consider. But clearly the regime in the North took the action against the South Korean navy for some reason, and if they don't get the reaction they expected, they can be counted upon to raise the stakes further until they do. There are no realistic economic or diplomatic steps that can be taken against the Hermit Kingdom, so the South is left with choosing between a military response and nothing.
My guess is that they will attempt a limited naval response, perhaps an attempt to capture or sink a North Korean patrol boat. If they use radio jamming equipment and act in the dead of night, they may be able to present their response to the Cheonan's sinking as a fait accompli and thus force the North to decide whether to retaliate rather than to act in defense. Either way, it's a reminder that we're never far from the next bloodbath...