North Korea launched a massive artillery barrage on a South Korean island Tuesday, killing two South Korean marines, wounding at least 19 other people and setting more than 60 buildings ablaze in the most serious confrontation since the North’s sinking of a South Korean warship in March.
South Korea immediately responded with its own artillery fire and put its fighter jets on high alert, bringing the two sides – which technically have remained in a state of war since the Korean armistice in 1953 – close to the brink of a major conflagration.
South Korea called the shelling of the civilian-inhabited island of Yeonpyeong, which lies near the disputed maritime border separating North and South Korea, a breach of the 57-year-old armistice that halted the Korean War without a peace agreement.
The North fired an estimated 200 artillery shells onto the island, and the South returned fire with about 80 shells from its own howitzers. The attack began just after 2:30 p.m.
Naturally, the usual suspects around the world have condemned the attack with the usual words, from President Obama to the Secretary-General of the United Nations to Kim’s patrons in Beijing. And, like all the other times he’s acted out, nothing will be done other than perhaps a sternly worded expression of concern and maybe a meaningless sanction or two — followed by offers of foreign aid.
Despite the breathless invocation of a “major conflagration” in the Post article, what this is not is a restart of the Korean War. Artillery exchanges aside, there have been no major troop movements in the North (which would be very hard to hide in this day and age) or any other observable preparations to invade the South. And, were this the start of an invasion, the North would certainly open up with the thousands of artillery tubes they have pointed squarely at South Korea’s capital, Seoul. And, if the first goal of any regime is survival, then invading a country guarded by 28,000 US soldiers is tantamount to suicide, even under a President as weak as Barack Obama. So, no, this is not the start of round two.
But, if not, then what is it?
The first key to understanding North Korea is the aforementioned survival imperative and the need for dynastic continuation. Kim not only wants to ensure that his regime survives, but, like any good monarch (even if dressed in Stalinist clothes), he wants to pass it along to his son and heir, Kim Jong-Eun. Since a democratic opening, market economy, free trade, and the attendant prosperity is out of the question for the proprietor of the worlds largest prison camp disguised as a nation, how else does Pyongyang go about meeting these two goals?
That brings us to the second key, the nature of the regime itself: North Korea is best described as a mountain-bandit state, extorting what it can from the world by occasionally acting crazy and scaring everyone else with the prospect of devastation if the bandits are not appeased. It’s all an incredibly cynical act, put on because North Korea simply cannot produce what it needs to survive. As Aidan Foster-Carter wrote in a great article at the Asia Times:
Importantly, “mountain bandit” is not just an insult (like James Cagney saying “you doity rat”). Rather, like “guerrilla” or “partisan”, it’s a concept – but a different and less forgiving one. Whereas the guerrilla may have had a noble cause, bandits are cynics: they’re just in it for the money. And they are parasites: unable to produce anything of their own, they prey instead upon the productive and law-abiding.
This, I must say, seems a highly apt analogy for North Korea today. Pyongyang’s militant mendicancy over its nuclear and missile activities is basically bandit behavior, demanding money with menaces. Pay up, or else: that’s the subtext. (The unspoken rider: And we’ll be back for more in due course.)
And, sure enough, they’re back. Consider what’s happened in recent months:
- The sinking of the Cheonan.
- Kim’s illness and the need to assure his son’s ascension to the throne.
- Barack Obama’s humiliating performance at the G-20 summit and the bilateral trade negotiations with South Korea.
- The sudden revelation of North Korea’s new nuclear facility, which should have surprised no one. (“North Korea? Cheating? No way!”)
- And now the artillery barrage on Yeonpyeong island.
All this is standard operating procedure for bandits: they need goods other people have, and the great protector of those people (the USA) is in a weakened state, averse to actually taking strong action. Time to rattle some sabers and demand tribute.
So, the combat at Yeonpyeong has two purposes: first, to scare the rest of the world into giving North Korea what it needs to survive, food and fuel. Second, the threat of war with America keeps Kim’s generals busy, so they don’t have as much time to plot an “unfortunate accident” for the Dear Leader’s heir apparent. Kim may be powerful, but other players in the regime are surely not happy with his family’s apparent lock on the top job.
So, what should Seoul, Washington, Tokyo, Beijing, and other concerned parties do? The Chinese, naturally, want a return to the six-party talks that, so far, have produced nothing. The last thing they want is for the West to take actions that might finally precipitate their ally’s collapse, with the inevitable political, security, and humanitarian crises.
On the other hand, doing nothing (or issuing statements of concern that would amount to the same thing) will only lead to further obstreperous behavior, as the Bandit King turns the screws a bit more to get what he wants. Kim and his buddies have to be shown there is a price, and not just another round of meaningless sanctions. Whether this means a retaliatory attack on North Korean military assets, a full-scale blockade, or something else, I don’t know. It’s possible that any action would trigger the war everyone wants to avoid – or the regime failure so many fear. Yet passively submitting to Kim’s aggressions, whether by ignoring them or giving him what he wants, seems unacceptable, too.
As with anything dealing with North Korea, it seems the only choices are bad ones.
LINKS: More from Claudia Rosett, who writes about Pyongyang’s extortionate diplomacy. Richard Fernandez reminds us of Secretary Clinton’s meaningless stern warning during the Cheonan incident. Hot Air, where Ed also thinks this does not mean war (we hope). I wrote earlier about the Korea problem. Finally, if war is afoot, would Dear Leader really be touring a soy sauce factory?
(Crossposted at Public Secrets)