Pyongyang stretches deterrence limits
By Andray Abrahamian
There is the general sense in the South Korean military that a chance has been
missed to demonstrate its deterrent capability following North Korea's
artillery attack on Yeonpyeong Island last month.
While foreign pundits may suggest the military should have responded with a
greater show of force, more aggressive posturing could lead to miscalculation
and a war that South Koreans - not foreigners - would have to fight.
Deterrence carries three components. First, there is the ability to deter. One
must have the materiel, manpower and training to effectively carry out military
operations against an enemy. North Korea has repeatedly demonstrated it has
such deterrence capability and it also understands that South Korea, backed by
US technology and training, does too.
Skirmishes over the past decade in the West Sea and along the
demilitarized zone have demonstrated that both sides can cause human and
material losses on a limited scale, but the essence of the Korean stalemate is
that both sides have the capacity to cause nearly complete destruction on one
For deterrence, one must have the will to deter and the opposition must have an
awareness of both your will and capability. The enemy's awareness of a
willingness to fight can only be realized through demonstrations and it is in
this aspect that some South Koreans, particularly conservatives, have found
their military wanting. The attack on Yeonpyeong Island, for them, was a missed
opportunity to demonstrate a willingness to fight.
The sinking of the corvette Cheonan in March was a different matter,
with inconclusive evidence and a divided polity, striking back was almost
impossible. By the time Seoul's investigation into the sinking had been
concluded, turning up evidence of a torpedo attack by North Korea, so much time
had elapsed that striking back would have caused more problems than it solved.
Domestically, the political fight over avenging attacks would have been severe,
while internationally, additional violence would have spooked investors and
damaged South Korea's economy.
The immediacy of the events at Yeonpyeong Island presented no such problems.
Rather, the problems came in assessing the strength of North Korea's actions
and finding a response. The military and no small portion of the public feels
that the response was insufficient and therefore undermined deterrence.
The new Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin has promised increased retaliation to
provocation, this during his parliamentary confirmation hearing on Friday. His
threat to respond with air strikes was a message to domestic politicians and
voters, but also to observers in the North: Kim seeks to convince the North
that future responses really will be swifter and harder.
The tricky thing is, however, responding in such a fashion so as to deter but
not to cause a wider conflict. If, by way of analogy, a thug is harassing you
on a dark road, you are faced with choices. Sometimes, one can diffuse a
situation through speech. However, to speak too softly to a thug is failure, as
he will not respect it. To adopt a more aggressive posture and draw a knife may
well cause him to back down and leave you alone. However, if he also draws a
knife, then you are caught in a knife fight. One or both of you could wind up
seriously hurt, if not killed.
The risk comes that in drawing your knife to deter, you must also actually be
ready to fight, kill and die. As the division of Korea became systemic, both
sides have sought to find the right level of deterrence to prevent a
large-scale attack from the other.
It is no exaggeration to say that the stakes on the peninsula are extremely
high. If through an overly aggressive deterrence posture war breaks out,
millions on both sides could die. Meanwhile, the two generations of sweat and
tears that drove South Korea's economic growth could be undone. As such, it is
absolutely inappropriate for foreign Korea-watchers to call for greater
aggression in confronting the North. Unfortunately, such articles were rife in
the days and weeks after the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island.
One conservative American editorialist, for example, suggested that the US Navy
interdict any North Korean vessels in international waters to search for
illicit goods. Another author implored President Barack Obama to buzz Pyongyang
with stealth F-22s to send a "very strong message" and provide a "non-kinetic
reminder" of US military might. Even seasoned and respected North Korea
watchers called for a more aggressive posture towards North Korea, invoking the
metaphor of a playground bully who needs comeuppance.
It is not lunch money that is at stake, however, making the analogy a dangerous
one. The only people who can decide to push harder against North Korea are the
South Koreans. Not to diminish the loss of life in border skirmishes (or even
the more shocking loss of 46 sailors in March), but the cost of those lives
against risking the peace and prosperity of the rest of the country should not
- indeed cannot - be made by outsiders. It is malapropos for pundits who have
never set foot in Korea, or those who would be out on the first embassy
organized evacuation vessel, to call for a policy that could lead to war.
As one public official who was not speaking for attribution put it: "Our worry,
as South Koreans, is that we'll have to go to war because of US policy." It
shouldn't be for foreigners to decide North Korea needs a stronger form of
chastening. After all, if there is a miscalculation, it is South Koreans who
will pay for it in blood and misery.
Andray Abrahamian is a doctoral candidate at the University of Ulsan,