The View From Olympus: Watch Korea

By now, the Korean drill is familiar to all. We take some symbolic action against North Korea. The North responds with its Tasmanian Devil act, threatening “lakes of fire”, firing missiles into the ocean and maybe, at the limit, shooting some artillery at South Korea. Casualties, if there are any, are few. South Korea in turn tugs at its leash, which we hold firmly. Yawn.

This time may be different. We did the usual, announcing some meaningless new sanctions on the North, though this time targeting its rulers by name, which slightly ups the ante. The North is playing its part, shouting hyperbolic threats, including war.

But here is where the current case departs from the script. No one is paying any attention to North Korea’s tantrum. We’ve seen it too often. The world’s reaction is, “let ’em starve in the dark.” From the North Korean perspective, the act no longer works.

Except in South Korea. This is the second change from the usual script. The South is fed up with the North’s antics. The South Korean president’s mother and father were killed years ago by North Korean assassins. She has not forgotten. In every recent incident, the South has suffered more casualties (when there were any) than the North. The general South Korean attitude seems to be, “We’re not going to take it any more.”

What can South Korea do? Invade North Korea.

The Pentagon’s Korean war scenarios all assume an attack by North Korea on South Korea. I suspect we have devoted little or no thought to the opposite case. We can always just jerk on South Korea’s leash and tell it to sit.

That may no longer be true. South Korea has a powerful military of its own. If the president says, “Go get ’em!,” it would.

Here’s a possible scenario: Its hysteria universally ignored, the North hits South Korea hard in an action that quickly ends. One possibility would be an artillery raid on Seoul that is over in 15 minutes. The physical damage would not be great, but the South Korean government and military would be utterly humiliated.

The South Korean people, enraged, demand serious action in return. They don’t want mere retaliation; they want a final solution to the North Korean problem. Remembering her parents, South Korea’s president orders her armed forces to invade, with the object of complete conquest and reunification. We tell the South Koreans, “Stop!” They reply with, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way.”

I do not know how such a war would go. Koreans on both sides are hard fighters. We may underestimate the North because its equipment is old, but the outcome of few wars is determined by age of equipment.

In addition, the North has nuclear weapons, sort of. They may or may not work. Their missiles are unreliable. But if they follow the traditional Eastern way of war, they will not do the obvious and try to nuke South Korea. They will aim at Japan.

On the physical level, a successful nuclear strike would deny us the ability to intervene with large forces, because we need a secure rear area in Japan. Mentally, it would catch Washington with its pants down (the North will never believe we did not give the South an OK to invade). On the moral level, it would be a masterstroke, because not only do all Koreans, North and South, hate the Japanese more than they hate each other, the Chinese people would also be in the streets cheering. The Chinese government would have a difficult time not supporting the North, however much it does not want a war.

If Pyongyang were clever, it would couple its nuclear strike on Japan with an offer to South Korea of immediate reunification, the details to be worked out later, and a declaration of war on Japan by the newly united Korea. That offer might get the South Korean people into the streets, demanding their government agree. The South Korean navy and air force are already designed more for a war with Japan than with North Korea.

How might this end? Japan would have to go nuclear immediately. We could end up fighting Korea and maybe China as Japan’s ally. As in 1914, the sleepwalkers would have again wandered into a war no one wanted. And Korea? It ends up with South Korea’s economic and political system, but with a (constitutional) monarchy restored under–you guessed it–the Kim dynasty!

And how exactly did we get caught up in this mess? By keeping troops in South Korea long after the Cold War ended, an event that removed all reason for their presence.