There’s a lot of noise in the press today about South Korea’s Cheonan investigation, and how the evidence points to a deliberate torpedo attack by an NK submarine. Perhaps my favourite headline is this one from the Voice of America: “S. Korea Says North Will ‘Pay’ For Ship Sinking.” Well, no, they won’t. And here’s why.
It makes a lot of strategic and tactical sense for the North to apply pressure to South Korea and adopt a more threatening posture.
North Korea’s a country in terminal decline; its economy stagnating, its people malnourished if not starving. For a long time South Korea sent food and economic aid to the North, in order to stave off a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. For many years the South gave more aid to the North than its putative ideological sponsors in China. But two years ago, the South cut off most of its aid because of the North’s foot-dragging on nuclear non-proliferation agreements. They had only recently reinstated some food aid shipments.
The North is trying to remind the South that it can’t be shunted off to a corner and ignored; it needs food, and the South needs to provide it. Or there will be war. And in order to prove that the threats of war are clear and present, it has to do something that looks and smells an awful lot like war—such as torpedoing the Cheonan without warning or provocation.
North Korea is canny enough to know that its southern neighbours would do just about anything to avoid a war. The collective memory of the last Korean peninsular war is long-lived, and the South is well aware that its present prosperity and social cohesion would be strained by a protracted war with the North. Thus the North can commit these acts of war and cold-blooded murder at the times and places of its choosing, and be assured that the South would never respond in kind. The South may threaten sanctions, but what are more sanctions to a nation already saddled with many, and a population already starving? The North is battling for survival and is willing to take big risks.
When things quiet down again, the South will probably reconsider its food aid once more, which will then provoke a newer, bloodier attack. And the South will once again emit a lot of harsh words but take no effective deterrent action. It will be forced to deal with the North and send more aid, purely because it can’t stomach the alternative.
The South, unfortunately, will have to re-learn the lessons that Britain did in the late 1930s—namely that there are fates worse than war. Such as having a neighbour who feels free to murder your citizens and servicemen at regular intervals in order to underscore the point that you need to ship them more food. Avoiding a war now seems like a small price to pay, but forty years hence, when a dozen corvettes have been sunk and various other atrocities committed, will the bargain in lives seem quite so cheap and easily bought?
Let us be blunt, it will be difficult if not impossible to avoid war with such a state. The North is already committing acts of war without fear of reprisal, and will only grow bolder as each new escalation goes unanswered. The South has nothing to mitigate these provocations, short of war—but because such an outcome is what is fears most, it will put up with no end of outrages in order to avoid it. At some point, its populace will lose patience and South Korea will be forced to wage a concerted campaign to bring the North down—whether by covert means or an overt economic and military campaign. One thing is certain, though: no nation of free peoples can long endure paying Danegeld to tyrants.