The two Koreas are once again in a dangerous confrontation after the sinking on 26 March of a South Korean Navy corvette that killed 46 sailors.
Korea is traditionally known as the “Land of the Morning Calm.” This week, as so often, there is nothing calm about the Korean Peninsula.
South Korea insists it has found parts of a North Korean torpedo fired by a midget submarine that sank its corvette patrolling the disputed Yellow Sea maritime border. The two Koreas have had numerous clashes there, most recently last fall, when a North Korean gunboat was sunk by the South Korean Navy.
Seoul’s powerful 687,000-man armed forces are on high alert, as are the 28,000 US troops permanently based in South Korea. Washington just announced it will deploy more warships to Korean waters and aid Seoul to develop shallow-water anti-submarine systems – yet another military commitment by a United States running on borrowed money.
South Korea’s conservative president, Lee Myong Bak, is in a quandary. He is under pressure to exact revenge on troublesome North Korea, but can’t do much more than cut back on commercial deals without risking a major war.
Interestingly, in the event of war, all of South Korea’s armed forces fall under US military command. Until recently, South Korea’s military was also under US command even in peacetime. South Korea is the world’s only major industrial nation whose armed forces are controlled by another nation – a point North Korea ceaselessly uses to denounce South Korea as a “US puppet regime.”
North Korea denies guilt in the sinking, a position supported by Russian and Chinese military experts. South Korean and foreign experts concluded a North Korean torpedo caused the sinking, but the finding of the weapon with North Korean markings on it seemed a bit too convenient. Some suspect the South Korean corvette may have hit a floating mine.
North Korea’s 1.1-million man armed forces are also fully mobilized. North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il, threatens “all out war” if the US or South Korea take reprisals.
The US forces based in Korea, US Marines, and the US 7th Fleet, are on high combat alert. In a potentially dangerous development, North Korean vessels will be stopped and searched for arms on the high seas, a virtual act of war. Iran is also to be subjected to similar aggressive inspections and harassment.
US State Secretary Hillary Clinton warns North Korea of “consequences” and says its alleged warlike action “cannot be unanswered.” A newcomer to diplomacy, Mrs Clinton, who previously threatened to obliterate Iran, has not yet learned
that making dire threats and not following them up with action makes one look and sound foolish.
A summit meeting of South Korean, Japanese, and Chinese leaders last weekend in Seoul failed to reach a plan for punitive action, with China refusing to blame North Korea.
In spite of Mrs Clinton’s bellicose talk, the US and South Korea have only three poor options:
First, launch punitive air and missile raids on North Korea, and blockade or mine its ports.
North Korea has 250-300 long-ranged 170mm guns and 240mm rocket batteries dug into caves in the granite hills of the Demilitarized Zone(DMZ) that could destroy a third of the South Korean capital Seoul, a metropolis of 10.3 million.
Downtown Seoul is less than 30 miles from the DMZ. Some 65% of North Korea’s army is concentrated within 60 miles of the DMZ.
North Korean troops could erupt from the many tunnels secretly dug under the DMZ. I’ve been in some of them: a 12,000-man North Korean division could jog through one each hour, taking the first line of South Korean and US DMZ defenses from the rear.
Behind this first line, the US and Republic of Korea (ROK) Army have constructed successive belts of fortifications, mine fields, and anti-tank barriers that span the width of the peninsula. Their very existence is denied, but I have seen them (modern fortification is a specialty of mine).
North Korea has some 1,000 mostly Scud missiles targeted on South Korea and the vital US airbases at Osan and Kunsan. North Korean Nodong missiles could deliver chemical or possibly nuclear warheads as far away as US bases in Okinawa and Guam, and Japan’s mainland, including Tokyo and Osaka.
North Korea also has the world’ largest commando force, 88,000 “suicide’ fighters tasked with attacking US and Korean air bases, communications, headquarters, political targets and supply depots in Korea and targets in Japan. They would be infiltrated from the sea and by ancient Soviet AN-2 biplanes flying below radar.
The US is loathe to tangle with a powerful enemy that can fight back and inflict serious American casualties – particularly one with a nuclear arsenal. Russian military experts say the US cannot defeat North Korea using conventional weapons. Pentagon estimates put the US casualty rate in a conventional war with North Korea at 250,000.
Second option: do nothing and allow Kim Jong-il to mock the US and South Korea’s leader Lee, whom he despises, causing them both huge loss of face in Asia.
Third, somehow convince China and Russia to rein in the unruly North Koreans. China supplies all North Korea’s oil, some of its weapons, spare parts, food, and links to the outside world. China could make “Dear Leader” Kim behave- or even send its army to remove him.
But China and Russia like an independent, defiant North Korea. Neither wants to see the Kim dynasty collapse and be replaced by a US-dominated regime. North Korea is next to strategic Manchuria, China’s highly sensitive province filled with military industries and bases, and to Russia’s vulnerable Far East. North Korea is far too useful to Beijing and Moscow for them to risk its regime collapsing.
Getting China and Russia to impose an embargo on North Korea would cost Washington dearly in political concessions, such as it is now making to secure their limited cooperation over Iran and Afghanistan.
Moscow and Beijing might impose some minor sanctions on Pyongyang, but are most unlikely to do anything that contributes to the collapse of North Korea’s Communist regime. They are more likely to discreetly encourage the replacement of the Kim dynasty by other senior party and military officials in a collective leadership.
South Korean security officials have expressed to me their deep fear of what they call, “unexpected reunification,” the collapse of Kim’s Stalinist regime that sends millions of starving people south. Japan also fears a flood of seaborne North Korean refugees. Tokyo also likes the status quo and does not want a rival, united Korea.
Mrs Clinton’s foot stamping won’t achieve much. Unless Beijing squeezes North Korea, the only option may be putting up with the annoying “Dear Leader.”