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Could it Escalate?

by Evan A. Feigenbaum
December 2, 2010

Just over a week into the Korea crisis, the constraints on retaliation by Seoul and Washington have become increasingly apparent. Both fret that Pyongyang lacks escalation control and remain (deeply) anxious about the consequences of a tit-for-tat escalation.

To my mind, at least, events of the past week have mostly underscored the basic calculations of the main parties:

North Korea is prone to provocative behavior, in large part for domestic reasons. But the North has been emboldened because its closest partner, China, has sought to rationalize Pyongyang’s actions, caveat its entreaties to Pyongyang for “restraint,” and shield the North from retaliation. This has almost certainly made North Korea more prone to act provocatively since its actions have invited few consequences from its principal benefactor.  Indeed, Chinese diplomacy since last week has struck a mostly even-handed tone, calling for restraint by all parties while hinting that China views US and South Korean military displays, not just North Korean artillery strikes, as provocative. This context shapes North Korea’s cost/benefit calculations:  Since it has been given few disincentives to do otherwise, the North will continue to challenge South Korea around the Northern Limit Line and engage in other provocations.

By contrast, Seoul is more constrained. President Lee Myung-bak is under intense domestic pressure to further loosen the South’s military rules of engagement. And some in South Korea seem to be itching for a rematch, not least because the military performed poorly in last week’s confrontation.  But Seoul remains more cautious in deed than word.  The rhetoric has sharpened.  Lee replaced his defense minister.  The South Korean military now has greater license to shoot back.  But the central problem for Seoul remains structural:  Weakness could invite additional North Korean provocation, but striking peninsular North Korean targets could invite rapid and very consequential escalation.

In practice, then, I suspect Seoul will seek to preserve a ladder of escalation in its future responses to North Korean actions: (1) firing at North Korean vessels offshore, as in the past; (2) discrete and limited counterbattery responses to specific sources of North Korean artillery fire; and (3) weighing a wider counterbattery target package only in extremis.  And that 
innate conservatism reflects South Korea’s own cost/benefit calculus.  The South, having built something over the last forty years, has everything to lose. Short of war, North Korea benefits more from escalation.  So Seoul will remain risk-averse.  Put bluntly, Seoul is certain to respond to a repeat performance by North Korea, but the scope and scale of its response will remain constrained.  At most, Seoul will respond proportionately. More likely, it will respond conservatively.

What now?  As I argued in my last post, the North has plenty of options for additional provocations, including a third nuclear test, another long-range missile test, or conventional attacks beyond the NLL.  But further conventional attacks would be especially destabilizing:  they would raise questions about whether the conventional deterrence that has kept the peace in Korea for decades is eroding under the shadow of Pyongyang’s nuclear capability. So, for now, Seoul and Washington seem to be betting that failure to respond to future attacks would further undermine deterrence and invite additional North Korean provocations. But both seem anxious not to escalate tensions and will likely focus on joint military displays to bolster conventional deterrence while rejecting Chinese entreaties for talks with Pyongyang.

My bets are off if North Korea attacks US military assets—for instance, in a future joint exercise—or targets peninsular South Korea.  But, for the moment, the bet in Seoul and Washington seems to be that common sense and Chinese leverage will set limits on rapid escalation by Pyongyang.

Still, that almost certainly means the crisis will sharpen US-China tensions.  The US continues to bet that Chinese leverage will set limits on escalation by Pyongyang and restrain further provocations. But China has shown scant appetite for coercing North Korea, and that seems unlikely to change in a fundamental way.  Indeed, while Beijing may well be privately telling the North to knock it off, those private messages have been sweetened by public displays of even-handedness and calls for “mutual” restraint. And with President Hu Jintao coming to Washington in about six weeks, this issue has rocketed toward the top of the US-China agenda. North Korea won’t crowd out every other piece of business, some of which will be positive.  But, like a growing number of issues in US-China relations, this one will produce more rancor than agreement.

Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Petar Kujundzic

Post a Comment 4 Comments

  • Posted by James

    Are we to believe that the U.S. military is unaware of the locations of the vas majority of north koreas military bases and the presidentual palace? Seoul should have all it’s citizens have a Practice drill(hint hint) getting them into bomb shelters and then have the U.S and South Korea carpet bomb
    the norths bases using missiles,bunker busting bombs and whatever else is needed and taking out the Dear Leader and his circle of family and leaders.

  • Posted by Charlie Seattle

    Dear Sir,

    China will not fix North Korea because it is not broke. North Korea is exactly what China wants. North Korea is an attack dog on a short leash chained in place next to two economic rivals next door.

    Why don’t we make North Korea, China’s problem to solve?

    Revoke MFN trade status with China until they disarm North Korea and jail dear leader.

    >>Turn around all the Wal-Mart bound crap haulers before they reachg US ports.

    >>And make it illegal…again!! to do business with a Communist State Sponsor of Capitaism.

    China is an unfair trading partner that has manipulated its currency for the last 20 years. MFN created the trade deficit that threatens to bankrupt our nation.

    The Korean war ended in TRUCE after President Truman failed to back up MacArthur and nuke China. All parties are still technically at war. We in effect made China and North Korea what they are today. We fought China on the ground and Russian pilots in the air. That sorta redefines it as a mini WWIII historically now doesn’t it?

    Our country did not trade with Nazi Germany and Japan while we were at war. Ironic that it’s happening with China during the “TRUCE”, yes?

    Yet our patriotic corporations fall all over themselves to use China’s MFN status bestowed by our Government to the detriment of our country and our children’s future.

    Clinton’s administration worked to bring China into the newly created World Trade Organization and to put unconditional MFN treatment for China on a permanent basis. This culminated in an agreement of 15 November 1999 to make China a full member of the WTO.

    So the next chance you get, ask dear Hillary to…… Kill Bill’s error.

    Charlie Roscoe
    Holland, Ohio

  • Posted by S. Mahmud Ali

    The North Korean ‘problem’ is clearly a complex one. It isn’t helped by the inconsistencies inherent in the US/Western position that unelected authoritarian dynastic rule is unacceptable. All members of the Gulf Cooperation Council fall in that theoretically disparaged community but this has not stopped their close proximity to Washington.

    Another difficulty is that many of the North-South military/naval disputes centre around the dividing lines between the two Koreas. As is recorded, in the summer of 1953, talks between the beliigerent sides led to the delimitation of a terrestrial military disengagement line which eventually led to the demarcation of the Demilitarized Zone (a totally inappropriate description, of course). There was neither any discussion of nor any agreement on the maritime boundary. A line was unilaterally decided on by the US military commander in charge of the ‘UN Forces’ on the Korean Peninsula in July 1953. Described as the Northern Limit Line (NLL), neither this line itself, nor its legitimacy, has ever been accepted by the North. This, too, is on the record.

    Because Pyongyang views this as a unilateral US imposition and rejects the NLL’s legitimacy, US and South Korean insistence on positions founded on the status of the NLL cannot be considered ‘accepted’ or ‘legal.’ When ROK forces conduct military exercises in such disputed areas as around the NLL, incidents like the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan and the shelling of the Yeonpyeong islet – while morally repugnant, diplomatically self-defeating, militarily futile, and strategically dangerous – cannot be surprising.

    Pyongyang’s behaviour has been analysed to death elsewhere without much light being shed. The realist perspective suggests that survivalist instincts of isolated, insecure and nearly bankrupt regimes can drive acts that can result in suicidal or lesser, but still apparently non-rational, outcomes.

    If this argument is considered reasonable, then it is difficult to see how piling added pressure on an unlected, authoritarian, isolated and insecure dynastic regime surrounded by very different and more attractive systems can lead to civil and sophisticated conduct. Addressing the North’s insecurity might offer a more practical alternative. Only when that approach has been tried out and been seen to have failed can pressure be adopted as a possibly helpful – or even last resort – tool of diplomacy.

    With nuclear weapons and delivery systems in hand, almost total control over the population assured, and insecurity especially pronounced at a time of leadership transition, North Korea could be counted on to behave in more ‘erratic’ fashion than it already is renowned for.

    Against that backdrop, the conduct of large-scale joint naval-air exercises in the Yellow Sea, and holding of trilateral ministerial meetings issuing stern warnings by countries considered unfriendly are possibly unlikely to elicit good behaviour from Pyongyang. The ministers’ statement on their reliance on China and Russia is perhaps an indication of reality dawning. However, even Beijing and Moscow are unlikely to exert existential pressures on Pyongyang, and courtesy of WikiLeaks, we all know what Beijing really thinks of its North Korean albatross.

    So, if military pressure, UN sanctions, diplomatic denunciations, economic pressures and shows of considerable force prove ineffectual in changing DPRK behaviour, what should the rest of the world do? Logic would demand that stake-holders review the record of their action and North Korea’s reaction with as much honesty as they can muster, and then explore alternatives to their current and recent, clearly ineffective, course.

    One initial step may be to decide whether North Korea will be treated like any other member-state of the UNO and accorded the same regard as others, or not. At present, the treatment meted out to Pyongyang straddles the shadowy middle-ground between legitimacy and illegitimacy (there are similar cases elsewhere). That lack of clarity cannot help in the process of rational engagement. And so far, US engagement with the DPRK has not shown much reason. The recent record is full of grave inconsistencies.

    So, Washington must make up its mind if it will ‘deal’ with Pyongyang or not. The DPRK regime, like its counterparts elsewhere, demands respect and security. Unless these are part of the broad package on offer, there will be more ‘incidents’ of the likes recently seen. The resultant volatility in a nuclear-armed milieu is potentially systemic and catastrophic. This is why those who claim to manage the system need to show much greater sophistication than evident in periodic military muscle flexing. As long as the USA and its allies are unwilling to take the logical next step to the application of their displayed force, 19th-century tools are unlikely to produce desired outcomes in the 21st century. Short of a regime-changing war, do not expect Pyongyang to kowtow to anyone.

    Introspection must begin at home if this particular demon has to be mastered.

  • Posted by Fredrick Misleh

    Dear Mr. Charlie Seattle:

    The PRC does not view North Korea as “an attack dog on a short leash.” But you are right in that North Korea is exactly what the PRC wants it to be: a buffer state to keep US troops away from its borders.

    The PRC doesn’t give two yuan about the Kims, but it would give everything to ensure the survival of some sort of friendly regime in North Korea to keep the US at bay.

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