Monday, March 31, 2014

Artillery Diplomacy - North Korea Tensions (Analysis)

Today, tensions on the Korean peninsula are at their highest levels since late 2010.

As of this posting (03:20 EST), North Korea has fired a number of artillery shells into South Korean waters near the Northern Limit Line (a traditional flashpoint area). RoK forces have responded with reciprocal artillery fire and have launched Combat Air Patrols into the area. 

The incident apparently began at about 12:15 local time (MON)/23:15 EST (SUN).

I have a number of thoughts.

1) This is North Korean strategy 101

Over the past two weeks, the North Koreans have been signaling their intention to increase tensions on the peninsula. This intent has been specifically evident both in North Korea's threats to conduct a ''new form'' of nuclear test and in recent missile launches. 

Now we have the artillery diplomacy.

It's an old game.

After all, North Korean political strategy has long resided upon a foundation of extortion. Believing that the international community lacks the confidence to compel them to alter course, the North smokes the air with the specter of war. 

North Korea thus uses its military as a kind of tolling booth for international security - 'Want peace? Then pay up.'

Of course, there's more at play here than random blackmail.

As I see it, the North probably had two specific motivations for sparking this latest crisis. First, the North Korean leadership wants to send a message of anger to the US/RoK in reference to war games. Second, the North Koreans want to remind the international community that the world does not begin and end with MH370 and Ukraine. 

Regardless, like any good extortionist, the North Koreans know that they have to be predictably unpredictable in order to succeed.

2) The potential for escalation is real

It's easy to regard the North Koreans as perpetual bluffers.

But that would be a serious mistake.

In fact, two factors make this latest crisis an especially dangerous one.

First, it's pretty clear that the North Korean regime is beset by growing factionalism. As the public purge of Chang Song-thaek illustrated back in December, Kim Jong-un remains obsessed by a ''factionalist filfth'' in the ruling elite. And while Kim has asserted greater control over the military, he appears to remain somewhat insecure. Correspondingly, the North Korean leader may consider that by increasing tensions with South Korea, he can consolidate his credentials as a strong leader. In flowing vein however, internal tensions in North Korea will make it much harder for Kim to back down if the South responds with confident resolution.

And this speaks to the second point.

The incumbent President of South Korea, President Park, is no 'sunshine-esque' Kim Dae-jung. Indeed, many in Park's party - New Frontier - are calling for an far tougher policy stance towards North Korea. As a result of this, we shouldn't expect the South Koreans to yield (nor should we). Still, the fact that the North Koreans gave South Korea advanced warning about this artillery 'exercise', could suggest that they want to avoid precipitous escalation. 

Nevertheless, it's critical to remember that the North Korean regime exists in a perpetual condition of near psychosis - incidents like the 'tree hacking attack' aren't just history. Rather, they are testaments to a totalitarian dynasty that is capable of just about anything. 

It's in this sense that the ultimate key to restraining North Korean aggression is not China. Instead, as I've argued before, North Korea can only be deterred by one thing - unwavering American resolve.

3) The Obama Administration/International Community have encouraged Kim Jong-un

From my perspective, the greatest failing of President Obama's foreign policy is the manner of its vacuum-like existence - the President seems to think that American adversaries pay no attention to US policy around the world. 

Except that the evidence is clear - the opposite is true. 

For one example, consider Russia.

During Putin's invasion of Georgia in 2008, President Bush helped restrain Russia by sending US Military flights into Tblisi. Conversely, as I argued last week, President Obama's hesitation has rewarded Putin's aggression in Ukraine. Yesterday, we saw the limits of Obama's rhetoric - ''a frank exchange''.

For another example, consider Iran.

Alongside Iran's continuing deception with regards to their nuclear program (see the latest IAEA reporting), the Islamic Republic has decided to appoint a new Ambassador to the UN - a man who once stormed the US Embassy in Tehran. 

It reeks of what it is - utter disdain for American power.

And North Korea sees all of this. 

For a regime that resides upon the appraisal of power as an end in itself, it's a catastrophic dynamic. Where Kim Jong-un senses weakness, he also sees opportunity. In turn, alongside the ludicrous dysfunction of the international community, President Obama's hesitation is empowering the worst instincts of authoritarians across the planet. While we gut our defense budgets, they continue their advance. I worried that this would happen.

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