Craig Hooper and Christopher R. Albon at The Atlantic:
As the Korean peninsula enters what U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates calls “a difficult and potentially dangerous time,” the long-dormant Korean conflict is rumbling back into the public consciousness. Government officials from the U.S., South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, and other states throughout the region are planning for the worst-case scenario: renewed war, perhaps nuclear, and a massive exodus from South Korea. If tensions continue to escalate, hundreds of thousands of foreign civilians living in South Korea will flee, sparking one the biggest mass-evacuations since the British and French pulled 338,000 troops out of Dunkirk in 1940.
Even under the best conditions, a mass evacuation is no easy task. In July 2006, as a battle brewed between Israel and Lebanon-based Hezbollah militants, the U.S. took nearly a month to evacuate 15,000 Americans. According to the Government Accountability Office, “nearly every aspect of State’s preparations for evacuation was overwhelmed”, by the challenge of running an evacuation under low-threat conditions in a balmy Mediterranean summer.
Evacuating a Korean war-zone would be far harder. And the U.S. would likely have no choice but to ask China for help.
If North Korea launches another artillery strike against South Korea–or simply hurls itself at the 38th parallel–the resulting confrontation could trigger one of the largest population movements in human history. According to one account, 140,000 U.S. government noncombatants and American citizens would look to the U.S. government for a way out. And that’s just the Americans. Hundreds of thousands of South Korean citizens and other foreign nationals would be clamoring for any way off of the wintery, dangerous peninsula.
In the absolute worst case, tens of millions of South Koreans and hundreds of thousands of foreigners, some wounded, some suffering from chemical, biological or even radiological hazards, will flee in the only direction available to them: south. The country’s transportation system would be in nationwide gridlock as panicked civilians avail themselves of any accessible means of travel. In this desperation and chaos, the U.S. military has the unenviable mission of supporting and evacuating U.S. citizens, all while waging a fierce battle along the DMZ.
South Korea has started to defend itself again against the North. It’s about time. For too long South Korea has been lax about the threat it faces.
It’s refusal to back down in the face of the North’s bluster about a calamitous attack should it proceed with a military drill on Yeonpyeong island, part of an area that the North claims as its sphere, was a promising sign. South Korean president Lee Myung-bak entered office with the claim that he would toughen up policy towards the North. He didn’t. The result was that the North kept hitting the South with impunity, whether it was attacking the South’s sea vessels or the island. Further tests are surely in the offing.
The North, however, is dependent on China and may not be as mercurial as it’s often depicted. The blunt fact is that it backed down from its dire threats against the South. The military drill went as it was supposed to. The North’s bluff was called.
Maybe former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson had a hand as well in getting the North to stay its itchy trigger finger. Richardson, a maverick operator if there ever was one, likes to hold powwows with the world’s dictators, a trait he shares with former president Jimmy Carter. But Richardson often seems to get results, in contrast to Carter. Richardson is asserting that the North is offering some concessions on its nuclear program.
Spencer Ackerman at Danger Room at Wired:
Overblown threats and North Korea go together like Kim Jong-il and Japanese pornography. But if South Korea goes forward with a live-fire drilling exercise — something that could happen as early as today — Pyongyang is threatening to reignite war on the Korean peninsula. Only it doesn’t look like it’s actually mobilizing for a sustained attack.
All eyes return to Yeonpyeong island, a South Korean island just south of the maritime armistice line that the North attacked in November. A few miles from the west coast of the Korean Peninsula in the Yellow Sea, it’s where South Korea’s military insists it’ll shoot off its K-9 howitzers, 81-mm mortars and 105-mm and Vulcan Gatling artillery guns. The target is an area southwest of the island — that is, away from North Korea. A contingent of about 20 U.S. troops will be on-site, ostensibly to provide medical backup, intel and communications support.
Their real presence probably has more to do with dissuading North Korea from attacking the South in response. Its official news agency put out a statement from military leaders that it will launch an “unpredictable self-defensive blow” if the drill proceeds. North Korea shelled the island last month after a previous exercise, killing two South Korean marines and another two civilians. This time, Pyongyang vows, its response will be “deadlier… in terms of the powerfulness and sphere of the strike.”
Civilians fled Yeonpyeong on Sunday. But North Korea didn’t look like it was preparing to back up the retaliation talk. The Wall Street Journal reports that military surveillance of the North showed “no signs of unusual troop movement or war preparations,” and the bellicose rhetoric didn’t come from Kim’s offices directly. Reuters reports that North Korean artillery units are on elevated alert, but that appears to be the extent of any buildup.
An ominous showdown between North and South Korea was forestalled Monday after the North withheld military retaliation for South Korea’s live-fire artillery drills on an island that the North shelled last month after similar drills.
The North claims the island and its surrounding waters and had threatened “brutal consequences beyond imagination” if the drills went forward. But the North’s official news agency issued a statement Monday night saying it was “not worth reacting” to the exercise, and a statement from the North’s military said, “The world should properly know who is the true champion of peace and who is the real provocateur of a war.”
The apparent pullback created a palpable feeling of relief in South Korea, where many people had been bracing for a showdown.
So now North Korea also wants to restart the Six-Party Talks? What just happened? As always, trying to explain North Korean behavior is a challenging task. Here are some possible explanations:
1) North Korea finally got caught bluffing. True, they have the least to lose from the ratcheting up of tensions, but that doesn’t mean they have nothing to lose from a military escalation with the ROK. The past month of tensions got everyone’s attention, and North Korea is only happy when everyone else is paying attention to them.
2) Kim Jong Un was busy. One of the stronger explanations for the DPRK’s last round of provocations was that this was an attempt to bolster Kim the Younger’s military bona fides before the transition. Reading up on what little is out there, it wouldn’t shock me if he planned all of this and then postponed any retaliation because he’d organized a Wii Bowling tournament among his entourage.
Somewhat more seriously, it’s possible that there are domestic divisions between the military, the Foreign Ministry, and the Workers Party, and that the latter two groups vetoed further escalation.
3) China put the screws on North Korea. For all the talk about juche, North Korea needs external aid to function, and over the past year all the aid lifelines have started to dry up — except for Beijing. As much as the North Koreans might resent this relationship — and they do — if Beijing leaned hard on Pyongyang,
4) North Korea gave the ROK government the domestic victory it needed. Bear with me for a second. The shelling incident has resulted in a sea change in South Korean public opinion, to the point where Lee Myung-bak was catching hell for not responding more aggressively to the initial provocation. This is a complete 180 from how the ROK public reacted to the Cheonan incident, in which Lee caught hell for responding too aggressively.
Lee clearly felt domestic pressure to do something. Maybe, just maybe, the North Korean leadership realized this fact, and believed that not acting now would give Lee the domestic victory he needed to walk back his own brinksmanship.
5) Overnight, the DPRK military hired the New York Giants coaching staff to contain South Korean provocations. Let’s see… a dazzling series of perceived propaganda victories, followed by the pervasive sense that they held all the cards in this latest contretemps. Then an inexplicable decision not to do anything aggressive at the last minute, after which containment policies fail miserably. Hmmm… you have to admit, this MO sounds awfully familiar.
If I had to make a semi-informed guess — and it’s just that – I’d wager a combination of (1) and (4).