And Death Comes Knocking from the North . . .
If I stay in South Korea long enough, I may yet see war on this peninsula. We witnessed an unprovoked attack yesterday . . . and death. I learned of the North's attack on Yeonpyeong Island by a text message sent to my cell phone yesterday around 5:30 while I was teaching a class. I ordinarily use my handphone only for checking the time, and I don't receive many messages. Most of the ones that I do receive are spam in Korean and safely ignored, but yesterday's was in English and said:
DPRK has attacked an island near Incheon.That was all. I didn't know who had sent the message, nor if the news were serious enough to cancel class. Without comment to my students, I went on teaching. After class, I learned from a brief query that my students knew more than I, but I had no time to inquire further and didn't learn any more information until reaching home after 7:00 p.m. I then learned of three military deaths on the South's side and multiple injuries, both military and civilian. But I was too exhausted from teaching and a long day, so I went to bed at 8:30 without learning more, and I've only had time to read a couple of articles this early morning, but I can't not blog on this event even though I've yet nothing of substance to report. I do sense the irony, as I noted in a comment this morning in response to an allusion to the North's attack:
I was also struck by the proper irony of so many posts on death, only to have death come knocking from the North yesterday . . .I hope not to end up like Archimedes, telling the Roman soldiers, "Don't disturb my circles," just before they put him to the sword. I don't think that things will come to that, as I explained to a Milton-scholar colleague a few minutes ago in an email:
We're safe . . . I think. I doubt that the North wants real war and is calculating that the shooting will remain local. The danger is always one of miscalculation, and I'm not convinced that the North is calculating well these days.My friend Steve Sin, a doctoral student at the University at Albany, SUNY, in the Department of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy and who maintains the blog Northeast Asia Matters, has quoted from and linked to a site called Nightwatch that more or less says what I think, only more professionally and with greater expertise:
The shelling is ex officio an act of war and starts another round of crisis. YP-Do [the island Yeonpyeong that was shelled yesterday by the North] is one of the five South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, northwest of Seoul. It is within easy artillery range from the North Korean coast.What the man at Nightwatch writes is consistent with my more inchoate views, but if you want a slightly different take on China's position in all this, go to Joshua Stanton's One Free Korea site, from where I've borrowed the Yonhap photo above. He's also embedded a video report on the shelling in which one can hear the civilians crying out in fear at the attack, terrified at the destruction and the mortal threat to their lives.
The few facts suggest this is another provocation, like the sinking of the corvette Chonan in March, to show the temerity of the heir apparent. He supposedly was the brilliant mastermind of the sinking, to demonstrate his leadership worthiness. His handlers apparently intend to use these kinds of provocation to be the signature of Kim Jung-un's leadership so that the Allies do not try to take advantage of his youth and inexperience, presumably.
Ironically, earlier during the Watch, news services reported North Korea offered to negotiate the termination of one of its nuclear arms programs, most likely the now terminated plutonium program.
The sequence of three significant developments in 72 hours suggests a plan to switch international attention back to North Korea. The North's behavior during the long nuclear crisis that began in 1993 is punctuated with provocative spikes of this nature. They occurred whenever the leadership judged North Korea was not receiving the attention they thought it deserved and when their initiatives were not generating the cash and aid commitments they expected and which they need for regime survival.
The periods of tension have been of varying duration, but they invariably ended with talks and promises of aid and cooperation. That is the usual patttern
Occurring just two days after South Korea declared the Sunshine Policy a failure, the shelling also probably is part of the North's response to South Korea's official end of its conciliatory engagement policy and programs. The message is that the North will reciprocate hard-line actions for hard-line actions, which is the customary symmetrical formulation in the North's threats. But in this competition, the North can be annoying, but is too weak in every respect to be a match for South Korea and will not have Chinese backing for any offensive provocations.
Thus at a time when the US has committed to expand the war in Afghanistan and China is busy building is sphere of influence in Southeast Asia, the North has sent reminders about a very different and vastly more lethal war that is still possible in northeast Asia, despite being increasingly pointless.
The risk of large scale fighting remains low because North Korea lacks the energy -- human and otherwise -- to sustain it. The North can start a conflict and kill lots of people, but has no ability to sustain a war; cannot defend itself or its population from an overwhelming Allied counterattack and will lose everything built by Kim Il sung since 1953 in a war. Most importantly, the highest leaders know it.
However, the risk of more shelling remains high for now. After the shelling stops, meetings with the UN Command at Panmunjom should clarify what the North wants now.
This may remain localized, limited to that South Korean island in the Yellow Sea, but the unprovoked attack is certainly war for those who endured the shelling and a brutal reminder of what the North has to offer: destruction, death, and "immortal hate" (PL 1.107)