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South Korea Raises

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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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