With the latest escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula, we saw what is, in my mind, the rise of an age-old question raised every time the North Korean noise-machine gears up for war: “Will they actually do it, this time?”
This question is the result of not just an image painstakingly put forth by the North Korean propaganda machine, but also a poor general understanding of the North Korean regime and its endgame
, so to speak. It seems that many of us appear to be of the opinion that the Kim regime is, really, truly, liable to start a war with the South – as if such an act would benefit them in some way. Of course, the madmen argument takes away the need for a beneficial reason on their end, but is this approach and view truly accurate of the Kim regime? Is the Kim regime truly liable to initiate the next Korean War? This article is the third in a series in which I call into question common ideas and misconceptions about North Korea – and the topic for today is the ever looming, North Korea-led next Korean War.
The US Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, was recently quoted as saying that “they (the Kim regime) stand no chance of defeating us and our allies in South Korea.” Carter’s statements highlight an aspect of inter-Korean affairs that many should become more aware of and something that I believe is key to a rational understanding of the situation: any sort of open conflict on the Korean peninsula is synonymous with the end of the Kim regime. For the Kim regime, war is, effectively and literally, suicide.
While, over the past two decades and beyond, the Kim regime has shown a tendency to escalate tensions on the peninsula at will – sometimes to the point where open conflict almost became feasible – the regime, somehow, always managed to never cross that line. The regime always managed to pull itself back from the brink and avoid that which would surely guarantee its own death. This tendency, to me, is no accident – rather, it is 100% deliberate. A deliberately engineered mechanism designed and mastered by the regime over many, many years to achieve any of a number of goals. Take, for example, the circle of events on the Korean peninsula. Inter-Korean affairs are dominated by a recurring cycle: the circle of provocation and rise in tensions, followed by concessions, followed by indifference/a quiet period, followed by yet another provocation. For every provocation, North Korea could reliably expect to receive some sort of attention or, more often, aid in return for its pledge to deescalate the situation. Upon receiving whatever it wants, the regime becomes quiet for some time – only to start another provocation and, thus, begin the cycle again.
These results are predictable as they have been consistent throughout recent history. With that, we must understand that when the Kim regime sinks a ship, shells an island, or attacks soldiers along the border, it does not intend to start a war – for obvious reasons. The regime aims to strike a balance – to maintain the state of war which legitimizes its existence, manipulate said state of war in order to achieve its own goals, but to ensure that the state of war does not erupt into an actual war for such an event would result in its own destruction. I put heavy emphasis on the word ensure in the previous sentence. Continuation is the goal here – war is not part of the North Korean endgame – only survival. North Korea will not start the next Korean War.
That is the first part of the fallacy addressed, but there is yet another: the idea that South Korea would never start a war with the North. It is true that, under normal circumstances, the South Korean military would remain well South of the DMZ. However, under certain circumstances, not only is war liable to “break out” on the peninsula, but I would expect South Korea to start it. Imagine a situation where, somewhere in North Korea. There is a low rumble. A stirring of new ideas and yearnings for freedom. Somewhere in the country, a movement begins. The regime, with all of its expertise in monitoring domestic affairs, is immediately alerted to this and dispatches officials and troops to correct the situation. The troops involved have no illusions about what will happen: this will be a bloody affair. It is then that a unit commander, perhaps disillusioned with the Kim regime, decides against crushing his own countrymen – the movement grows. Before long, more units are involved and more commanders must make the decision: destroy their own countrymen and any evidence of this movement, or join in – in the hopes that things might finally change. The party elite become nervous and rash decisions are made. Soldiers and units begin to fire upon one another – one side wishing for freedom, one side hoping for mercy from the regime. More rash decisions, more troops, more gunfire – the unthinkable has occurred in North Korea: revolution.
What I have described here is an example of something that could occur in North Korea at any time, given the correct trigger. The origins and chain of events are completely of my own design, but the idea is what counts: this occurrence, whether in this form or another, is possible and, should it occur, South Korea must be prepared. It is in such a situation that I believe the South Korean government would take the step to cross the 38th parallel and prevent the situation from degrading any further. In frank terms, this is what we would call an invasion – the start of the next Korean War.
Of course, this is not necessarily in line with our general conceptions of war. Certainly, not a war of ideological claims and wanton destruction, but, rather, a war of prevention – a war to secure loose nuclear weapons from dangerous hands, liberate a broken population from lifetimes of abuse, bring new stability (of sorts) to the region, a reunite a people forcefully divide for longer than most of us have been alive. Regardless of whether one’s perception of the coming “war” is in line with my own or not, my primary point here is that the next Korean War, assuming there will be one, will not be on North Korea’s terms – it will be on ours. It will be ours to start and ours to win. This, is my mind, can most certainly be a question of “when”, “how”, and perhaps even “if” – however, this is not a question of “who.”
The “who” will be us – but for all of the right reasons, ideally.
“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.”
– Sun Tzu