Brinkmanship in my back yard

Brinkmanship (forgive me for using wikipedia): “the practice of pushing dangerous events to the verge of disaster in order to achieve the most advantageous outcome.”

Also: what is happening right now, only 50 miles away from me.  Sure, it has been happening for years on this peninsula.  Sure, there hasn’t been an escalation since the end of the original conflict in 1950.  However, there hasn’t been any resolution to the conflict.

The desired outcome? I’m not exactly sure.  From some of what I’ve read, the North’s primary goal is to eliminate the government in the South and be declared the only governing force in Korea.  From other things I’ve read, they are actually interested in diplomatic compromise: something along the lines of (1) recognition as a legitimate nuclear state, (2) guarantees of “election-proof” consistency from the U.S., (3)some kind of compromise between the need to open their borders and trade to provide life-sustaining opportunities for growth and the real possibility that such an opening will cause the demise of the regime.  I think, of the 3 options, only the first is something the United States and South Korea would even consider.  Even this is a stretch, as I don’t think anybody but China or maybe Venezuela is in favor of calling a nuclearized North Korea “legitimate.”

Today’s clash involved the North delivering roughly 200 rounds for about an hour followed by a response of 80 shells from the South.  Two South Korean soldiers have been killed and several others have been wounded.  This comes at a time when tensions are already high: North Korea is asserting itself as a young nuclear state while it is preparing for new leadership.  The North is even claiming that the South fired first, citing the military exercises that began today.  They claim that any violation of their territory deserves a swift and powerful response.  This means that if there is territory under dispute, activity that the South presumes to be neutral could indeed provoke the North to lash out in unpredictable and destructive ways.

There are domestic reasons for their actions as well.  The North is preparing for a new leader, Kim Jung-Il’s youngest son.  It is possible that this is some kind of exercise done with the intention of proving his power and perhaps of solidifying the need for continuing their strong emphasis on the military.  These domestic variables may overcome any of the international variables that I posited before, but this is all just ungrounded theorizing.  If it is the case that the bombardment of the island is a result of the internal needs of the north, the brinksmanship theory is out of the question because that assumes rational actors.

For now, we are stuck in this chess game of munitions where we (those of us on the south side) cannot really be sure about the mindset, the intentions or the capabilities of the other side.

The people at my work say that this “happens all the time.”  I was aware before I moved here that there were tensions.  I knew that the North had sunk a ship in March.  Within weeks of arriving here, they had already fired shots across the DMZ, and today they started what I consider a very serious artillery campaign against an island only 50 miles from me.  Maybe I am paranoid, but I think I can hear airplanes from my building.  The government in the South is presently holding a special meeting and fighter jets have already been deployed to the Island.  The South Korean President is promising a “firm” response.  Some people in my city are warning that foreigners should get ready to leave, others are assuming it is just another blemish in the decades long conflict.

At school, the students seemed to go about their business just fine.  In the teacher’s office, everybody was reassuring us that things would be just fine at the same time as everybody’s attention was focused on the situation.  Walking home, I noticed that the TV’s in the markets and restaurants were all focused on the incident- as they should be.  Tomorrow will be another day, and I can only hope that I don’t have to leave my new home because of an unnecessary and unprovoked aggression.

The embassy has not issued any instructions, only a notice to stand by for further information.  I’ll leave you with the same: if you are at home or here in Korea, stand by for more information.

I understand that the chance of escalation is quite low, but playing this game is still disgustingly annoying.

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6 thoughts on “Brinkmanship in my back yard

  1. Thanks for commenting on my post, one thing that was mentioned is that the current president of South Korea has a much more aggressive stance against the North than his predecessor did. Mix that with an impending change in power in the north and it’s a recipe for trouble.

  2. sheperd: thanks, that’s good to know- keep up the good work

    byron: the more I am reading about this, the more I worry that you might be right. The S needs to save face after not retaliating to all of the aggression in the past. If they are going to try to call their bluff, now is the time. I’m just worried it’s not a bluff.

  3. Interesting read. I think though that it’s untrue that we cannot know “the mindset, the intentions or the capabilities of the other side”. Their logic, while skewed, has its own internal consistency. And what we do know is that with pretty much every conceivable sanction in place against them and the essential threat of Mutually Assured Destruction in the event of significant retaliatory military action by the South, they feel a: fairly safe to make such actions. b: are suffering massive loss of face to their people in the wake of the apology for their botched currency reform. c: the military will be itching to win brownie points with an incoming leadership cabal… Given all the above, a very careful approach by Seoul is needed here.

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