At first glance, the tensions with North Korea seem like Europe 1914: One country steps out of line; another responds with the threat of force; the next thing you know, the World War I breaks out.
On closer inspection, things don’t look remotely that dire, though there is certainly good cause to be nervous.
Here’s what’s been happening. The past few weeks, U.S. and South Korean forces have been holding annual joint military exercises. North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, reacted with bellicose rhetoric, threatening to turn the region into a “sea of fire” at the slightest provocation. So far, so normal.
Then, South Korean President Park Geun-hye announced that if Kim takes any aggressive action, she will respond with overwhelming force. Kim screamed louder. Then President Obama ordered two B-2 bombers to fly over South Korea and drop some unloaded bombs on a test range. He also sped up deployment of missile-defense systems to Guam and sent two guided-missile destroyers closer to North Korean shores. Kim screamed a bit more in public about his readiness to start a nuclear war.
The reassuring news: Much of Kim’s bellicosity is probably aimed at his own people, whipping up war scares to justify their continued impoverishment and oppression. And Obama’s brandishing-of-arms is aimed, in large measure, at his South Korean allies—to assure them that America has their back and will take action if the North gets aggressive.
But there’s a nerve-racking flipside to this news: Messages are sometimes misinterpreted; gambles are often based on miscalculations, especially if the antagonists aren’t speaking to one another directly (and Kim’s regime did shut down the North-South hotline not long ago). History is littered with wars that neither side wanted to happen. That’s what worries many officials and analysts when they look at the Korean peninsula.
Over the years, North and South Korean forces have clashed in the DMZ and along a disputed maritime border known as the Northern Limits Line.In March 2010, a South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, sank, killing 46 sailors onboard. An international investigation led by South Korea blamed a North Korean torpedo.* The South Korean government of the time held back.The one in power now probably wouldn’t—and for good reason. But some worry that President Park would retaliate in disproportionate measure. This could compel Kim to strike back harder still, if just to show his military officers that he’s not a weakling. Park wouldn’t stop there. And here’s something else. Daniel Sneider, associate director of Stanford’s Shorenstein Asia Pacific Research Center, notes that, if South Korea’s escalation extends to its air force, the Combined Forces Command—the joint U.S.-South Korean military authority—gets involved automatically, by treaty. In other words, the United States gets involved in another Korean War.
This escalating scenario—much more than the notion of a bolt-from-the-blue strike by North Korea against, say, the U.S. fleet in Guam—is what is making some officials and analysts more nervous than usual.
President Obama flexed America’s muscles—sending the two B-2 bombers over Korean skies, the two guided-missile destroyers closer to Korean harbors, and the missile-defense systems to guard U.S. forces in Guam—in part as a message to North Korea’s leaders that nuclear weapons are a serious business and that if they do anything rash, the United States can inflict devastating damage without hardly lifting a finger.
But Obama also, and perhaps more importantly, was sending a message to the leaders of South Korea (and, implicitly, Japan as well) that the United States will honor its treaty obligations, so there’s no need for them to escalate a conflict (or to start building their own A-bombs, as some in Seoul are mulling); we’ll do the heavy lifting when it comes to nuclear deterrence and, if necessary, military response.