South Korea Ups the Ante: Could Koreas Face War?


The stand-off between the Koreas, which began after North Korea
shelled a South Korean island without warning, just got a great deal
more tense. New South Korean Defence Minister Kim Kwan-Jin, who took
office after the attack, warned that South Korea would respond with war
to any further aggression. “If North Korea launches another military
attack on our territory and people, we must swiftly and strongly respond
with force and punish them thoroughly until they surrender,” he said.
“We do not want war, but we must never be afraid of it.” This
rhetorical escalation has many worried it could raise the risk of
all-out war. Here’s what Korea-watchers are saying.

  • ‘Real Possibility of War’ Between Koreas  Victor Cha warns
    in South Korean daily newspaper the Chosun Ilbo that “there is a real
    possibility of war on the Korean Peninsula.” He explains that “the danger
    stems from two combustible trends: A North Korea which mistakenly
    believes it is invulnerable to retaliation due to its nascent nuclear
    capabilities, and a South Korea that feels increasingly compelled to
    react with military force to the string of ever more brash provocations
    like the artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong Island.” Cha says the U.S.
    should bolster South Korea’s military to increase deterrence and begin
    talks to convince North Korea that nukes are not defensive weapons.
  • How This Rhetoric Could Lead to Unintended War  Robert Farley notes that South Korea’s rhetoric will “raise the domestic costs of inaction
    in the face of further North Korean attacks. It will be very hard for
    the Seoul government to resist escalation in response to future
    incidents; it has painted itself into a rhetorical corner, mostly by
    design.” In other words, domestic
    politics in South Korea will now make the country much more likely to
    respond to North Korean aggression with all-out war. This is meant to deter the North, but Farley points out that because North Korean leadership is
    unfamiliar with the South’s democratic politics they may not understand the new
    situation. “Consequently,” he concludes, “I’m more than a little worried about the
    possibility of an actual shooting war on the Korean Peninsula.”
  • Even All-Out Victory for South Korea Would Be a Defeat  Think Progress blogger Matthew Yglesias reminds us of “the curious fact that victory itself
    would be a disaster for South Korean living standards. Ask a (West)
    German someday about the cost of reunification, and consider that the
    task facing Korea would be an order of magnitude more difficult.” Even a
    stunning victory would also be “costly for [South Korea] in terms of
    losses.”
  • Island Dispute Could Spark More Violence  NightWatch’s John McReary examines
    a statement from North Korean media warning of continued violence over a
    South Korean island near the border.

The underlying message is that
South Korea illegally occupies a North Korean island which sets the
stage for more harassment and provocations. The article …  implies
that North Korea intends to keep pressure on Yeonpyeon island, at least,
probably with the expectation that South Korea eventually will be
forced to abandon it. This statement adds context to the South Korean
announcement on the 8th that it intends to fortify the islands.

  • South Korea Doesn’t Want Reunification  Wired’s Spencer Ackerman notes
    on his personal blog that this is a silver lining. It could increase
    the deterrence effect and reduce the cost of a possible military
    conflict. “If ‘surrender’ for the North Koreans means a retreat behind
    the DMZ, then Seoul’s stipulated disinterest in unification makes the
    South Korean statement of deterrence more credible. It would also
    have the benefit of roping in the Chinese and U.S. interest in
    maintaining the status quo on the peninsula.”

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