Potential Responses to North Korean Provocations

What sort of response is required to Pyongyang's ratcheting up of tensions on the Korean Peninsula?


Doug has already commented on the attack by North Korean artillery on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island, resulting in the deaths of two South Korean soldiers and the wounding of a number of others. This action by the North Koreans is part of a presumably intentional ratcheting up of hostilities on their part that began with their sinking of the South Korean naval vessel the Cheonan, continued with the previous shelling in the area of Yeonpyeong Island, and may even include the recent revelation of a brand spanking new North Korean nuclear enrichment facility. What should our response be to these actions?

For a briefing on the U. S., South Korean, and North Korean military posture in the Korean peninsula see here (PDF).

After an appropriate period of outrage we could ignore the situation; we could offer the North Koreans additional inducements for more acceptable behavior on their part; we could offer a military response; and we could attempt to encourage the various principle actors in the tensions on the Korean peninsula among themselves.

Ignoring the situation seems to me mostly likely to provoke an increase in aggression on the part of the North. If they don’t get what they want (more money), they will undoubtedly raise the stakes: it’s worked pretty well for them so far.

Offering additional inducements merely empowers the North to continue their nuclear weapons development and their increasingly hostile actions towards the South. It would just kick the can down the road. Sometimes allowing for the passage of time is the best response; North Korea has shown few signs that it is ready to stand down from its exceedingly hostile stance.

Given North Korea’s extreme sensitivity to even the mildest of what it deems provocative actions, any offensive military response on our part could place Seoul in real jeopardy Our editorial pages frequently mention Pyongyang’s massive artillery and inventory of rockets, some possibly armed with chemical or biological warheads, all aimed at Seoul. To some extent that’s exaggerated. Seoul is likely beyond the reach of conventional artillery and it also likes at the limits of range of most of the North’s rockets. Seoul itself is probably not at risk (which explains South Korea’s blasé attitude to the North’s massed artillery and even its nuclear weapons development).

However, the Seoul environs and suburbs are and any serious military strike against the South by North Korea would undoubtedly inflict casualties on the South mounting in the tens of thousands or more.

IMO our best course of action would be to remove our forces from north of Seoul to south of Seoul. This would lessen the “tripwire” effect our forces provide there, remove them from the range of North Korean artillery and rocket attacks, and send a powerful signal to the stakeholders, i.e. North Korea, South Korea, China, and Japan, that the destabilizing effects of North Korea’s actions can be matched with destabilizing actions of our own.

South Korea is a country with nearly double the population of North Korea and an economy thirty times the size of the North’s. It’s high for South Korea to adopt a more pro-active role in normalizing its relations with the North. The presence of our troops guarding the DMZ as a stabilizing force has come to the point at which it is stabilizing things in the wrong direction.

I would prefer that we withdraw our forces from South Korea entirely but baby steps. Baby steps.

FILED UNDER: General
Dave Schuler
About Dave Schuler
Over the years Dave Schuler has worked as a martial arts instructor, a handyman, a musician, a cook, and a translator. He's owned his own company for the last thirty years and has a post-graduate degree in his field. He comes from a family of politicians, teachers, and vaudeville entertainers. All-in-all a pretty good preparation for blogging. He has contributed to OTB since November 2006 but mostly writes at his own blog, The Glittering Eye, which he started in March 2004.

Comments

  1. rodney dill says:

    Hmmmm…. I suspect something including bowing will be involved.

  2. Franklin says:

    IMO our best course of action would be to remove our forces from north of Seoul to south of Seoul.
    Based purely on what’s been written here on OTB about North Korea over the previous year or so, this is an interesting solution.  It appears that the time for carrots is over.  Unless someone can explain to me how the situation there is ever going to improve, there’s going to be another war on the peninsula and it would be better to get it over sooner rather than later when they’ve got stockpiles of nukes.
    Plus I’m going to be all chickenhawk here and hope it’s over before my sons approach drafting age.
     

  3. tps says:

    The goal of the US for the past 10 years or so has been trying to pull back from the border. The outposts on the DMZ are all South Korean manned but our main base, Camp Casey, is closer then Seoul is to the border. The reason why we haven’t is that the South Koreans keep putting roadblocks in the way because they want us on the tripwire.
    The best idea would be to remove our troops and leave stockpiles in safe locations in case the North does try something. We can fly the troops in and go into battle.

  4. Perhaps an academic conference where we can ask “Why do they hate us?” is in order.  Or another sternly worded letter from the UN.  Maybe a sequel to Team America: World Police.
    As to your proposed solution, interesting.  But if ignoring it will ratchet up their response, why do you think retreating won’t as well?  I find it amusing that the “tripwire effect” is our burden, and not theirs.  Honestly, this is what is fundamentally wrong with diplomacy in these matters.  The only way to deal with a bully is to confront him straight away.  Any sign of weakness or pretending it didn’t happen just rewards bad behavior and encourages more.  Do we have to wait afor a nuclear tipped warhead to be launched first?

  5. Drew says:

    I’m not sure I “got” the tripwire reference, either. 
     
    Dave – is your point that by pulling our troops south of harms way we a) remove the need to respond to NK missiles raining down and b) signal to the relevant parties that we are not going to carry their water any longer? 
     
    Charles – If that is what Dave is saying, it would be consistent with his views on how to reduce our military expenditures:  reduce the breadth of our committments.  I think I agree with this, although on matters in which I have no training or experience I usually am a questioner, not an aggressive commentor.  Not to put words in his mouth, but he’s not saying you don’t punch the bully in the mouth, just that someone else needs to be the puncher.

  6. steve says:

    I think I largely agree with you Dave, though I do think some artillery could probably hit into Seoul.
     
    http://www.globalsecurity.org/military/world/dprk/m-1978-170.htm
     
    South Korea is much wealthier and has more people than North Korea. They need to decide what they want to do about having a crazy neighbor, and their largest city so close to the border. There is no reason why we should be defending them when they have the neans to do so if they want. I guess you could make a case for keeping some troops below Seoul to counter potential Chinese intervention, but that seems pretty unlikely.
     
    Steve

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Dave – is your point that by pulling our troops south of harms way we a) remove the need to respond to NK missiles raining down and b) signal to the relevant parties that we are not going to carry their water any longer?

    Yes, that’s exactly my point.
     
    I think there’s a reasonable argument that we should retain troops in South Korea to deter Chinese adventurism.  I think it’s unlikely and I don’t agree but I think it’s a reasonable argument.
     
    I see very little reason that we should keep troops in South Korea to deter the North.  The South can take the North.  Here’s a little question to think over.  The North Koreans are heavily fortified and have put a lot underground.  The South hasn’t.  If the South is at risk from the North wouldn’t it be reasonable for them to take some measures?
     
    Our presence enables the South to do much less to handle their “crazy neighbor” (actually crazy brother) than they otherwise might.  Is that why we’re there?  Legitimate reason?  Worth the risk?  Worth the cost?

  8. Drew says:

    So a follow on, Dave.  Its my understanding that the South is taking its marching orders from the US, and those orders are currently flaccid.
     
    Wouldn’t a change of position encourage the North (taking their que from China) to get more aggressive in the near term.  Said another way, is this a precipitating event?

  9. I guess I thought that South Korea was an ally and the reason US forces are there is because , as these comments keep mentioing, there is the matter of China behind North Korea and its belligerence.  If it was just between the North and South, I would agree that we should probably walk away, but it isn’t.
    How would Japan and everyone else in Asia react to our telling South Korea that they are on the own?

  10. michael reynolds says:

    I don’t think we need to worry about the Chinese getting too frisky under the current regime.  But regimes change — especially in historically fractured states whose stability rests on a a mix of repression and an unsustainable eternally-upward growth pattern.
     
    Nevertheless, it’s time for SK to take this over.  It might be a good idea to keep some logistical facilities in the country, just in case we need to move in to shore them up in an emergency.  But other than that, a country that can make a Hyundai Genesis can mount its own defense against a country that can’t grow rice.
     

  11. Actually, it is a classic case of guns or butter.  The North chose guns and the South chose butter.  Historically, this usually results in the side with guns taking the butter whenever the decide they want to. 

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    If it was just between the North and South, I would agree that we should probably walk away, but it isn’t.

    We should negotiate with China a mutual position of negative reciprocity, i.e. if they don’t get involved in a squabble between North Korea and South Korea, we won’t, either.
     
    If you believe, as I do, that China doesn’t think much better of North Korea’s ongoing provocations than we do, it’s a good deal for China.  The North continually fomenting new crises in hopes of a handout doesn’t further China’s foreign policy objectives in the region; it’s just a continuing embarrassment.

  13. steve says:

    China, like many other powers, likes to have a buffer on its border. However, I dont really think they give North Korea orders at this point. Could they rein in NoKo? Maybe, but it doesnt get them much of anything. I do think that they want to avoid lots of refugees from North Korea.
     
    Steve

  14. george says:

    I guess I thought that South Korea was an ally and the reason US forces are there is because , as these comments keep mentioing, there is the matter of China behind North Korea and its belligerence.
     

    But considering the proximity of China to the Korean peninsula, the deterence effect on China of American troops is now mainly symbolic.    Its much more likely that China is acting as a brake on North Korea than as an incitement.
     
    Spending your resources on guns rather than butter works to a point, but when you get large differences in economy then the side spending on butter typically still has the better military.  The US vs USSR is a recent example of this.  There’s no reason for the US to remain there – though of course the exit has to be phased to give South Korea time to pick up the slack.