Should we expect another war in Korea?

Summary:  Our military and national security gurus love crises for like that now in Korea. As does the news media, which overflows with fear-mongering laced with war-mongering. Both feed modern America’s defining characteristic: bellicose insecurity. Here we review some general lessons from history, and point to some sources of reliable information and analysis about North Korea.


What do we do about a problem like Kim Jong Un? A crazy guy with a massive army, nukes, and rockets oh my?

  1. Hints from history
  2. An expert’s analysis
  3. For More Information
  4. A lesson from Oz

(1)  Hints from history

The US military has taken a wide range of prudent steps — complacency is a big danger with respect to these kind of threats. But that doesn’t mean the hysteria that dominates much of the news media is appropriate, except as a useful tool of social control to keep US citizens in a fearful, hence subservient, frame of mind.  While defensive actions should be — and have been — taken, history gives us a few tips about what’s likely to happen.

(a)  Small nations run by tyrants seldom take bold actions that risk destruction of the regime. As Mel Brooks said, it’s good to be the king!

(b)  Bold actions are more often taken by small nations with support of powerful allies. Examples are Serbia vs. Austria 1914, North Korea 1950, North Vietnam, perhaps even Iraq 1990 (if Saddam though he had tacit approval of the US).

(c)  Bold actions are most often taken by powerful nations. The Confederacy firing on Ft Sumter in 1861. Germany in 1870, 1914, 1939. The many US strikes in Latin America and Russia in Eastern Europe.

(d)  Nations taking bold risks usually seek tactical surprise. Like most of the wars between Arab nations vs Israel: Israel attacking in 1967, and the Arabs attacking in 1973 on Yom Kipur. If you plan to bite, don’t alter the foe by barking.

(e)  Despite their reputation, tyrants seldom have secure internal foundations — hence their love of foreign distractions, and reluctance to incur the stress of war.

(f)  But sometimes situations spin out of control. Sometimes wars result.

(2)  An expert’s analysis

Excerpts from two articles by Steven Haggard, Prof International Relations, UC San Diego.

(a)  “Kim Jong Un is not crazy“, CNN, 2 April 2013:


March brought us a series of what pundits like to call “provocations” by North Korea. On closer inspection, Pyongyang has opted for rhetoric over actual military actions. While Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of nuclear and missile capability remains worrisome, escalating signals of resolve could suggest nervousness as much as strength.

(b)  “What are the North Koreans Doing?“, Peterson Institute for International Economics, 1 April 2013:

Since that time, things appear to have gotten a lot worse. Here, we draw on the KCNA, the invaluable North Korea Leadership Watch,  State Department press briefings,  and other sources to update the state of play. Three general observations emerge.

First, the context of the apparent escalation is the winter training cycle and the continuation of the joint Foal Eagle exercises. There is some baseline of what might be called “ritualized escalation” in play. The units that Kim Jong Un has visited and the exercises he has overseen fit broadly within the training cycle. What has changed somewhat is much more frenzied domestic mobilization around the exercises. …

Second, it is not clear that the North is in fact escalating in the traditional sense of the term; the game is largely declaratory and rhetorical. Prior to the UNSC sanctions resolution, the North issued threats that they might launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike. Needless to say, that threat did not go down well. When military forces are on high alert, signals of an intention to pre-empt — however implausible — potentially create hair-trigger situations where even small tactical movements could be misinterpreted.

Since that time, a careful reading of statements over the last two weeks suggests much more caution than is thought.

… What exactly have the North Koreans done? On closer inspection, not much. Cutting the hotline eliminates one channel of communication to the South. But there are others through Kaesong and to date there is no evidence that the workers in KIC are being held hostage (about 750 South Koreans live on site, with anywhere between 100 and 500 going in each day). We are highly skeptical that they will close this cash cow, as some recent reports have suggested. But if they did, the costs would be higher for the North than for the South …

Placing strategic rocket forces and artillery on a higher stage of alert is risky, as we have noted. But these forces are already on a high state of alert, and this last round of statements are all  cast in deterrent terms: the hyperbole is about actions the North would take n response to ROK or US “provocations,” defined as actual military action against the North.

A final point is that by exercising restraint with respect to actual military actions, the regime can count on the fact that the US and South Korea are not going to take the first step either. This fact leads to a welcome result: North Korea’s exercises, mobilization and threats of retaliation have in fact been successful at deterring an attack, even though it was not coming in any case. The regime can now claim success and step down.

… North Korea ultimately “withdrew” from the armistice, but it had done so before and it is not clear what its recent statements actually mean. The armistice is not a peace treaty, but merely a cease fire. The armistice is stable not because of verbal commitments but because of the deterrent capability of both sides. Is anything really different as a result of this “re-withdrawal”? It doesn’t seem like it.

… The following table presents a timeline of the last two weeks, including significant North Korean actions and Kim Jong Un’s guidance tours, the triggers the North Koreans have given for their actions, and American and South Korean responses or steps that are germane to the apparent escalation.

(3)  For More Information

(a)  Other resources

(b)  Other posts about North Korea:

(4)  A lesson from Oz




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