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Posturing on the Korean peninsula

Elliott Pearce | Sunday, February 24, 2013

North Korea has been in the news a great deal recently for its aggressive and persistent saber rattling. On Feb. 12, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) conducted the third nuclear weapons test in its history, drawing unanimous condemnation from the international community. Last Saturday, North Korean military and political leaders suggested that North Korea might attack in response to United States and South Korean military exercises scheduled for next month. Nuclear tests and threats of military action are frightening, but North Korea has been engaging in such bellicose behavior for a long time. In this column, I will examine how grave a threat North Korea poses and discuss some possible ways to defuse or at least ride out the situation.

As I said before, North Korea has tested nuclear weapons twice before, once in 2006 and again in 2009, yet no military conflicts resulted from either test. North Korea knows better than to launch a nuclear first strike; if they did, the far-superior United States nuclear arsenal would wipe them off the face of the earth. Kim Jong-un’s regime may be brutal, and it may even be crazy, but it is not stupid. North Korea likely sees its nuclear weapons as a deterrent to United States and South Korean military aggression and not as tools of aggression themselves. The biggest danger these weapons pose comes from the possibility that North Korea could sell one to a terrorist organization or simply allow one to fall into terrorist hands through negligence. The likelihood that if terrorists ever used a North Korean nuke the weapon would be traced back to North Korea and the victim(s) of the attack would retaliate in kind provide North Korea with good reasons to keep its nuclear weapons from falling into the wrong hands. The North Korean nuclear threat, therefore, remains high but stable.

At first glance, the threat of a conventional attack by North Korea seems quite elevated. According to the New York Times, North Korea has said that if the United States and South Korea proceed with their upcoming joint military exercises, it could cause a war. The frequency of North Korea’s dire predictions of all-out war and the cartoonish language in which the DPRK issues them make one pause before taking any of North Korea’s threats too seriously.

“If your side ignites a war of aggression by staging the reckless joint military exercises Key Resolve and Foal Eagle again under the cover of ‘defensive and annual ones’ at this dangerous time, from that moment your fate will be hung by a thread with every hour. … You had better bear in mind that those igniting a war are destined to meet a miserable destruction,” Pak Rim-Su, chief North Korean military delegate to the United States, said.
“The allies regularly conduct such joint military drills,” though, “and whenever they happen, North Korea warns of war and threatens to deliver a devastating blow to American and South Korean troops,” Choe Sang-Hun of the New York Times said.

We may have more reasons to take the North Koreans at their word than usual, though. Jen Alic, writing for CNBC, has said that North Korea’s fear of a joint United States and South Korean attack are not unfounded. The United States and South Korea’s war games are not just rehearsals of defensive maneuvers against North Korea: They are simulated invasions in which 100,000 South Korean troops and 9,000 Americans supported by ships, aircraft and armored vehicles attack by air, land and sea. The war games have been getting larger and more aggressive since Kim Jong-il’s death, she says, which she believes is a sign that the United States and South Korea may see the DPRK’s recent change of leadership and current aggressive behavior as good motivators for regime change. I don’t think this is the case, though. It is widely acknowledged that if North Korea ever launched a full-scale attack against South Korea, the allies would not stop at defending South Korean soil but would carry the fight to the DPRK to prevent it from ever launching such an attack again. The military exercises are therefore probably just rehearsals of the second phase of a response to North Korean aggression.

I believe that the United States and South Korea should go ahead with their war games and take other precautions against a North Korean attack, such as cooperating with Japan on missile defense to reduce North Korea’s nuclear threat. The allies should not, however, take any offensive action against North Korea. The underfunded and overexerted U.S. military should not be looking for war right now. Instead, we must use whatever sanctions we can to continue applying pressure on the North Korean regime in the hope that it will soften its stance toward its neighbors.
Elliott Pearce is a senior Program of Liberal Studies and mathematics major from Knott Hall. He can be reached at epearce1@nd.edu
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.