Home / Robert Farley / South Korea Raises

South Korea Raises


Words, words, words:

South Korea will swiftly and strongly respond with force until North Korea surrenders if the communist state launches another assault, the South’s new defence minister said.

Kim Kwan-Jin issued the warning on Saturday, during his inauguration speech after President Lee Myung-Bak officially appointed the retired four-star general as the new defence chief following a parliamentary confirmation hearing Friday. Kim Kwan-Jin replaced Kim Tae-Young, who came under fire over the military’s allegedly feeble response to North Korea’s deadly shelling of South Korea’s Yeonpyeong Island near the tense Yellow Sea border on November 23.

“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,” the new defence minister said.  “We do not want war, but we must never be afraid of it,” he said, adding South Korea faces “the worst crisis since the Korean War,” which ended in an armistice in 1953.

The sinking of a South Korean warship in the Yellow Sea in March and the shelling on Yeonpyeong left “indelible wounds” on the South’s military pride and honor and had deeply disappointed its people, Kim Kwan-Jin said.

Some Schelling-esque observations:

  1. There’s no doubt that South Korea’s reluctance to escalate plays a role in how free the DPRK feels to harass the RoK. As we know, even a victorious war would be devastating for South Korea, meaning that Seoul is inclined to shrug off provocations as serious as the sinking of a patrol ship without warning.
  2. This rhetoric is intended to suggest to North Korea that Seoul has exhausted its patience with provocation, and is willing to incur substantial costs in responding to any future attacks. In short, the intention is deterrence.
  3. North Korea may nevertheless conclude that Seoul remains reluctant to pay the exorbitant costs of an all-out war, regardless of the rhetoric. Alternatively, the North may make an attitudinal rather than an economic assessment, and conclude that the South simply lacks resolve. The North may be correct in such an assessment.
  4. However, rhetoric like the above is intended in part to 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. The North Koreans may not fully understand the domestic implications of these kinds of comments.
  5. Consequently, I’m more than a little worried about the possibility of an actual shooting war on the Korean Peninsula.
  6. The US should be supportive of South Korea, but not to the point of emboldening a South Korean war party. I don’t think that this is much of a threat, since everyone seems to recognize the enormous costs that South Korea will have to pay in any war. US support simply can’t make those costs go away.  However, I suspect that it will be difficult for the US to restrain a South Korea that feels victimized by the North.
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  • wengler

    The leaders of the DPRK really need these sorts of incidents to prove to their people why the cult of Kim Il Sung is still relevant. They tend to get stuff by acting threatening as well, so there are more motivations in a single shelling incident to be unraveled.

    • MichaelC

      It’s very likely that the North Korean government actually thinks these military exercises are hostile actions. It’s leaders don’t get out much and probably assume that other governments think like they do.

  • cpinva

    i suspect that this was, to some extent, for the benefit of the south korean populace as well. the two recent unprovoked attacks by north korea are, i believe, having the unintended consequence of hardening the average south korean’s attitude towards north korea (based solely on reports i’ve read), and the south korean gov’t may feel it needs to strike a hard public pose, to mollify the public.

    that said, i have to wonder if the average south korean realizes just how much damage NK could do, in the short window of opportunity they’d have, before they were blasted into oblivion?

  • ajay

    I’d be interested to hear thoughts on this point: obviously full escalation will involve massive artillery duels, air strikes, heavy damage to Seoul etc. How feasible is partial escalation? Would it be stable to have a situation much like that on, say, the border of Israel, with periodic shelling and SF raids into the south, and retaliatory strikes on the north? Or is it considered inevitable that once escalation starts, it’ll go all the way?

  • On the other hand, Dr. Schelling might suggest that, based on post-conflict history, this is just another in a long line of nK harrassment meant for public display. If South Korea were to retaliate to the next provocation in a limited fashion, say a short bombing run on a military unit near the DMZ, maybe nK would respond by… doing nothing.

    I thought “Arms and Influence” was aimed at demonstrating that two countries could, in fact, communicate by using equivalent shows of force to make a point. That is to say, nK should expect and not be surprised by a limited, sharp attack across the border, and in fact probably would take steps to ensure its populace never heard about it. There’s no reason to suspect that nK would escalate based on a South Korean response to its aggression.

    • Brad Potts

      That’s what I am wondering about too. From what I understand about NK politics, Kim Jong-Il might welcome a minor retaliation in order to “prove” how much the DPRK needs their great leader to protect the country.

      Or he could be so self-assured as to think himself untouchable.

      Do we have any sort of idea about how much Il believes his own hype, so to speak, and how much of this is a political cat-and-mouse game to him? If it is a cat and mouse game, would we be better off stringing it along or “nipping it in the bud”? What about if Il is just completely delusional?

      • Henry

        Unlikely, If the South Takes some action, the North needs escalate. The fact that the PRK is not a democracy does not mean that there aren’t any “constituencies” and factions. So if the North does not escalate, the people might not even know about the whole thing but the ministers and generals and courtiers will.. and some might start murmuring about the dear leader going softie…

  • I suspect that it will be difficult for the US to restrain a South Korea that feels victimized by the North.

    Indeed, and paradoxically the perception that the US’s support isn’t entirely reliable might motivate them to be more aggressive (we’ll force their hand) rather than less.

  • Brad Potts

    I apologize if this has been addressed at another time on this blog, but in the event of another DPRK provocation, would SK, the US, and whatever other forces in the region have the capability to respond in a way that prevents the DPRK from devastating SK population centers?

    • dave

      No. Even a massive surprise attack could not prevent artillery and rockets flattening a goodly proportion of Seoul. The amount of ordnance the Norks have pointed at it is insane – except, of course, insane it’s clearly not, as it’s keeping them safe…

      • John F

        No, China is keeping them (and by them I mean the regime and its leaders) “safe”, what all the artillery does is allow them to act out whenever the mood strikes

      • Brad Potts

        I’m pretty sure it is insane, as there are a lot better ways for them to maintain their safety.

        I could protect my house by keeping a ill-tempered wolverine in my living room. It isn’t sane just because it serves its purpose.

        Anyways, sounds like a “rock and a hard place” situation for SK.

  • John F

    Alternatively, the North may make an attitudinal rather than an economic assessment, and conclude that the South simply lacks resolve. The North may be correct in such an assessment.

    Countries/leaders who make decisions based upon the belief that their adversary lacks resolve oftentimes make stunningly tragic mistakes

  • wiley

    If I’m not mistaken, North Korea is looking at another famine and has suffered massive flooding right now. The recent militance may be a distraction intended for the NK population. Giving them a lot of aid may be rewarding bad behavior, but they need rice. Desperate nations with weird leaders do desperate and weird things. It’s amazing how long humans can bear absurd hardships.

    • wiley

      Forgive my grammatical clumsiness. I woke up at four this morning and couldn’t go back to sleep. Need more coffee.

  • mpowell

    How much should we really worry about restraining SK, though? If they want to go to war, they’ll bear most of the costs. For example, if there are preparations that the US can take and we are trying to balance between emboldening a SK war party and supporting an ally, we should err towards the latter. Of course, rhetoric is different since it usually doesn’t have this balance aspect.

  • JT

    The South Koreans have to very dramatically rip their steering wheel off and throw it out the window in this high stakes game of Korean “chicken” This is not deterrence this is brinksmanship. North Korea has had its fun, playing hardliner and tough so that the new would be heir to the leadership of North Korea can get his bona fides as a “strong leader”. Now, North Korea is on notice, as much damage as it can cause South Korea, in the face of another war – South Korea’s total victory would be inevitable. I doubt that South Korea would have made such an announcement had it not been fairly certain that North Korea’s need for “toughness” had not been temporarily sated. If North Korea tosses a rock into South Korean territory – I hope South Korea bombs that Jonestown of a nation back into the stone age. I do not understand why South Korea has not shown more self-respect in the face of continual North Korean provocation. At the very least, shut off the joint ventures and don’t give the North Koreans so much as a cup of free rice.

  • John F

    I do not understand why South Korea has not shown more self-respect in the face of continual North Korean provocation.

    The average SKer feels bad for the average NKer, they’re all cousins so to speak, the average SKer DOES NOT want to bomb NK back into the stone age-

    The problem is the Government of NK does not appear to govern or react as a “normal” Government governs or reacts. All out War with the NKs likely means a repeat of Europe 1914- both Countries are virtually perpetually mobilized- and NK’s nukes aside, as has been mentioned NK has an utterly ABSURD # of artillery pieces within range of SK’s population centers- so much so that nothing short of a nuclear first strike could take them out before Seoul and a few other places are devastated- what becomes of Seoul in a new war? Forget Sarajvo or Grozny or Lebanon- think of WWII and Warsaw, Dresden, Tokyo…

    If I’m an SKer I’d be willing to lose a hell of lot of face before deliberately enduring that.

    • ajay

      All out War with the NKs likely means a repeat of Europe 1914- both Countries are virtually perpetually mobilized

      Not really. South Korea spends substantially less on its military (both per capita, and as a percentage of GDP) than the US. In terms of both military spending/GDP and soldiers/population, it’s on a level with Greece – and Greece is overarmed, but hardly a garrison state.

  • I speculated 6 months ag ago, just after the previous DPRK provocation, that part of the point of constant sabre-rattling is to spook the ROK elites and ordinary citizens into treating the whole topic of reunification as too hot to handle.

    Wouldn´t it make sense to compartmentalise thr issues into the crisis (horribly sensitive) and the aftermath? There´s every reason to have a public debate about the problems of a reunited Korea – one year after the collapse/war and ROK takeover, however it happens, short of an entirely thinkable nuclear war. Rational planning drawing on the experience of German reunification, the end of apartheid, and the occupations in Germany, Japan and Iraq, would make the prospect more likely, and the DPRK leadership don´t want this.

  • Brian


    Those are people in North Korea, even if their leader is a fucking maniac. Bombing them “back into the stone age” involves thousands or millions of them dying. But by all means, keep up the tough rhetoric from your keyboard. Badass, bro!!

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