The great sage Roy Rogers once said ‘There is nothing so stupid as the educated man if you get him off the thing he was educated in.’ I have to confess I am no expert on Korea. My bona fides, such as they are:
- I lived in Seoul for three months in the summer of 1994 when Kim ‘The Zombie King’ Il Sung (he’s the ‘Eternal President’ of the DPRK, as you may know) shuffled off his mortal coil. It was a very fraught time. The agreed framework for winding down North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme was being negotiated. And there was a lot of concern that Kim ‘The Zombie Prince’ Jong Il (he’s the ‘Eternal General Secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, don’t you know–natch) did not have full control of the country’s ruling apparatus. War was a very distinct concern then but, you know, we stayed cool and we got through it. Let’s try that again, maybe?
- One of my students, an avid hiker and climber like me, happened to be a South Korean Army engineer. We spent a lot of time together walking the hills and paths along the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) which runs to the north and east of Seoul along the 38th parallel. It’s a funny old thing the DMZ. Bit of a misnomer really seeing as it is really, really, very, very militarised. It’s not easy to miss but a good way to understand how militarised it is is to walk along it with an engineer pointing out how pretty much every road, path, bridge, water crossing, defile, high point, low point, ditch, culvert, etc has been rigged to be blown up, blocked, mined, plastered with indirect fire, turned into a killing zone etc. Oh, and there are bunkers everywhere and incursion tunnels (who knows how many, four have been found) as big as small highways dug through it jammed full of weapons, vehicles and kit. It’s the very definition of a powder keg–a very big keg.
- I’ve read a bunch of books on the politics and history of the peninsula. Not enough to make me expert but enough that I feel that, more or less, on the basics, I know what’s what. One thing which seems to me very pertinent is that Kim Jong Un’s army may be an antique but it’s been well-tended and unlike, say, Saddam Hussein’s army, it’s probably prepared to fight quite hard, at least for a while. I’m not sure it’s worth even talking much about nuclear weapons. A couple of points to consider: population of Seoul 10.5 million; population of greater Tokyo 35.5 million. That’s going to take a lot of bandaids and potassium iodide tablets to clear up.
I mention this mostly because I agree with Robert Kelly (who is way more expert than me) over at the Asian Security blog that punditry on the issue basically stinks bad. Commenting on the sort of people one sees on the news, he says:
I can think of so many well-qualified, well-published NK experts in the US, vastly better than I’ll ever be: Lankov, Cha, Kang, Cumings, Anderson, just to name a few. But you never see these guys on CNN. It’s the just same generalists again and again – Zakaria, Amanpour, ex-generals, and so on. And Fox is even worse where its just Bolton, Hannity, and Jennifer Rubin. Yikes. And don’t forget the guy who blamed gay marriage on the Norks.
Anyway, I don’t want to get lumped in with these guys even though I really am a generalist. The thing is, though, that even for a generalist some of the things we’re hearing about what to do about North Korea are completely mental. A case in point, from yesterday’s New York Times an op-ed advising ‘Bomb North Korea, Before its too Late‘:
Since a missile on the ground is an obvious and largely undefended target, we can be reasonably sure that a strike would destroy it and preserve regional stability and the safety of our allies. An American pre-emptive strike would also re-establish necessary red lines for North Korea and other countries in similar circumstances.
As President Xi Jinping of China stated earlier this month, “No one should be allowed to throw a region and even the whole world into chaos for selfish gains.” By eliminating the most recent North Korean missile threat, the United States will reduce the threat posed by the North’s arsenal. The United States would also reassure everyone in the region, and those watching from other parts of the world, that although it is not seeking regime change, America and its allies will not be blackmailed by threatened missile launches.
The North Korean government would certainly view the American strike as a provocation, but it is unlikely that Mr. Kim would retaliate by attacking South Korea, as many fear. First, the Chinese government would do everything it could to prevent such a reaction. Even if they oppose an American strike, China’s leaders understand that a full-scale war would be far worse. Second, Mr. Kim would see in the American strike a renewed commitment to the defense of South Korea. Any attack on Seoul would be an act of suicide for him, and he knows that.
A war on the Korean Peninsula is unlikely after an American strike, but it is not inconceivable. The North Koreans might continue to escalate, and Mr. Kim might feel obligated to start a war to save face. Under these unfortunate circumstances, the United States and its allies would still be better off fighting a war with North Korea today, when the conflict could still be confined largely to the Korean Peninsula. As North Korea’s actions over the last two months have shown, Mr. Kim’s government is willing to escalate its threats much more rapidly than his father’s regime did. An unending crisis would merely postpone war to a later date, when the damage caused by North Korea would be even greater.
I find this unconvincing, to say the least. It’s a gigantic gamble for a limited pay-off against excellent odds of a massive loss. Strategists and world-watchers, can I get a shout out for an old-fashioned ideal called masterly inactivity? It used to a very well respected principle in military thought. It’s why Kurt Von Hammerstein reckoned it was the ‘clever & lazy’ who were most suited to the highest command positions whereas the ‘industrious & stupid’ must never be given responsibility for anything. But it has fallen out of favour in recent decades with politicians and the military also, both of whom have become obsessed with speed and struck with the urgency to always do something awful and dangerous in order to forestall some conjectured even more awful and dangerous eventuality. Can we just cool it? ‘Mr President, Mrs Prime Minister, what are you going to do about X?’ ‘Well, that’s a good question. First, I’m going to sit here and smoke some cigarettes. Then we’ll see. Maybe smoke some more.’ Good answer.