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Limited Diversionary War?

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Grover floats an idea:

Now assuming that the incident was the product of centralized decision making rather than an unintended one ordered lower down the food chain (something I discussed earlier here), Kim Jong Il may simply be engaging in a tit-for-tat retaliatory strike for an earlier skirmish, something the Times itself suggests. And while such a diversionary war would likely distract at home and provide some temporary relief from any internal pressure, is the “Supreme Leader” really so risk acceptant as to start something that could spiral into a bigger war that could see his downfall?

My guess is that the incident was not intended to start a diversionary war but was either retaliation or another in a long history of provocative displays of force by the North Koreans. Then again, Kim Jong Il may be assuming – perhaps correctly given South Korea’s current lack of desire for a major war on the peninsula – that any South Korean response is likely to be quite limited and can provide some helpful distraction. Of course, this is all premised on the notion that we are talking about a substantively (or even procedurally) rational, unitary actor – something that might be a stretch in this case.

This is interesting, because South Korea really faces a quandary. War is simply not in South Korea’s interests. While it’s exceedingly unlikely that the US and South Korea could lose a war against the North, South Korea would nevertheless pay very high costs in both military and civilian terms. Moreover, in a general war South Korea loses even if it wins. Integrating a war/famine/communism plagued North Korea will be an enormously expensive and time consuming endeavor, one which Seoul does not particularly wish to contemplate. I suspect, then, that South Korea is willing to tolerate considerable North Korean aggression before resorting to general war.

The North seems to understand this, which is why a limited diversionary war seems plausible. Then again, it’s a very risky game for North Korea, and previous North Korean behavior has suggested considerable paranoia about US intentions. It’s unclear just how far Pyongyang would be willing to push Seoul and Washington in order to derive domestic benefit. I suspect that Grover’s second suggestion is correct; the North saw the destruction of Cheonan as an acceptable degree of escalation in the naval war off Korea’s west coast.

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  • Some Guy

    So it’s been decided that North intentionally sank the destroyer? I haven’t been following this too closely, but there was a story on NPR that basically suggested that it was attacked and sunk, rather then an internal-type accident.

    • Robert Farley

      We’re pretty much down to mine or torpedo, with torpedo being the favorite.

  • Jon

    The NK government would like to stay in business. An external military threat to the country will rally the populace to the government. They don’t have whole lot of other options, and I suppose they’ve decided their nuclear dog won’t hunt right now.

  • greennotGreen

    Whenever you link to Grover Cleveland, would you be so kind as to use the whole name? There’s that fearful moment of delay before hovering over the link that it might be Grover Norquist – so disquieting.

  • ajay

    Well, there seem to be three options for the audience for the sinking of Cheonan – either it was unauthorised by the NK leadership, in which case we don’t know what level authorised it and why; or it was authorised, and aimed at influencing another audience inside NK; or it was aimed at influencing an audience outside NK.

    If the second: it’s a hell of a serious move; if Kim Jong-Il feels it necessary to do somethink like that to strengthen his internal position, there must be quite a threat to him.

    • Robert Farley

      Right. The first option is intriguing; it’s certainly possible that some enterprising commander did this on his own accord (if it turns out that it was a torpedo), but it’s almost literally impossible to think of a way of determining whether this is true. If an American sub commander popped a Nork destroyer on his own authority, who would believe that he had acted alone?

      I’m tempted to say that if you don’t immediately cashier the commander in question and publicly disavow the action, you kind of have to own it.

      • ajay

        Not generally the case. Remember what happened to the captain of the USS Vincennes – not only wasn’t he cashiered or even censured, he actually got a decoration.

        I suppose that the Iranians did actually conclude from that that the US was “owning” the shootdown. But I don’t think that’s the message the US wanted to give.

        For that matter: were any IDF officers cashiered for the USS Liberty attack?

        • Robert Farley

          Right; it wasn’t the intention of the US to send that message, but it was certainly the message the Iranians received. They may have interpreted it differently if the commander had been cashiered.

          Liberty is a more interesting question, but the relationship is different; in both the Cheonan and the Vincennes case, you have adversarial relationships that don’t incline anyone to cut the other guy any slack. And of course, in the Israeli case the attack may well have been intentional…

  • mpowell

    I don’t understand why the SKorean leadership faces a ‘quandary’ over this issue. If the NKorean leadership is melting down, they are certainly in trouble, but their precise response may be irrelevant.

    It seems like what they should probably do is retaliate in some very minor way to attempt to indicate that they won’t completely ignore stuff like this but that generates non-existent risk of escalation. What is wrong with that analysis?

  • After the “bubble-jet” presentation the other day, the torpedo hypothesis looks like a just-so story. I’m impressed by the Lee administration’s restraint, which for me indicates a lack of confidence in the torpedo hypothesis. The mine hypothesis looks more and more plausible. That for me raises another issue: how will Seoul climb down if the culprit was an old North Korean, or even South Korean or American mine?

    • Robert Farley

      I’m not sure exactly what you mean by a “just-so” story; the torpedo hypothesis is both verifiable and falsifiable. I’m not sure that the South Koreans are going to have to “climb down” from anything, as they’ve been extremely careful not to make any clear empirical claims about the cause of the sinking of Cheonan. And finally, I think that there are plausible reasons why the South Koreans would be reluctant to claim torpedo destruction that have nothing to do with lack of confidence; they have no good military or diplomatic options for dealing with North Korea.

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