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Will North Korea Escalate?

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On March 26, 2010, North Korea fired a torpedo, sinking a South Korean naval ship, the Cheonan, in the Yellow Sea, in waters South Korea considered open water. The Cheonan was in the area near Baengnyeong Island, 130 miles northwest of Seoul, to assure the safety of crab fishermen. Yearly, in March and April, crabs are plentiful in these waters near the line that marks the border between North and South Korea, fought over in the Korean War. North Korea doesn't recognize this border nor the  demilitarized zone.  As a result, many South Korean ships have been fired upon and sunk.

Following the sinking of the Cheonan, rescuers pulled 58 survivors from the water; 46 crewmen were killed in the incident. The original report indicated that the ship was on patrol and began sinking at 9 PM, the result of a hole in its stern, below the waterline. At that time it is reported that the United States was not asked for assistance. It was soon determined by several agencies that a North Korean torpedo had caused the sinking.

Prior to this torpedoing, tensions between the Koreas had seemed to be easing, North Korea needed food supplies and fertilizer from the South. However in January, South Korea responded to North Korean artillery fire during military exercises with warning shots, and in November there was an exchange of fire as a North Korean vessel crossed the maritime border. North Korean President Kim Jong-Il, recently turned 67, denied that the North was involved in the deadly attack on the Cheonan. He warned that retaliation would mean "all-out war."

At this point we consider the possibility that this action by North Korea is not merely another sinking due to the lack of agreement on the dividing line between the North and South, but rather a prelude to war. The North Korean mandate that the South must not retaliate gives substance to that likelihood.

The United States and allied countries are stepping up already massive sanctions on North Korea, but North Korea prides itself on a policy of "juche", or self-reliance. South Korea has plans to airlift leaflets deploring North Korea's actions; but North Korea views such pamphleteering as hostile propaganda. South Korean military loudspeakers are now broadcasting to the North, but North Korea says it will open fire on the loudspeakers and destroy them.  Pyongyang, the North Korean Capital city, and South Korea, officially the Republic of Korea, have no diplomatic relations and technically remain at war following a 1953 truce which ended the three-year Korean War.

Observers were quick to note that possible strategies in retribution for the  sinking of the Cheonan are heavily dependent on the participation of the China. If China should choose to oppose sanctions, or military intervention, the outlook may be grim. China is the key, and the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, has expressed deep regret over the loss of life that came from the sinking.

Hillary Clinton, American Secretary of State has had "very productive and detailed discussions about North Korea" (her words) with Chinese President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. Secretary of State Clinton traveled to Seoul last week (mid May, 2010) to discuss escalating tensions with South Korean officials. Directly prior to those meetings, Clinton was engaged in talks with Chinese officials for several days. Ms. Clinton expressed hopes that the U.S. and China could work within the international framework to find an "effective, appropriate response" to the sinking of the Cheonan.

However, on Wednesday, May 26, 2010, The New York Times  published an article that dimmed the hopes of The U.S. and those expecting support from China. China does not accept the Western view ; measures sought at the Security Council predicted on Chinese support will have to be re-evaluated.

Secretary of State Clinton now defines China as a "veto-wielding member", a "North Korean ally", and "a nation likely to block any attempted new sanctions." But Mrs. Clinton did state: "I believe that the Chinese understand the seriousness of this issue and are willing to listen to the concerns expressed by both South Korea and the United States.” It is clear that China, while expressing compassion, opts to side with the aggressive North.  An all-out war with the U.S. pledged to support one side, North Korea on the other, with China favoring the North Korean position, could have world shaking consequences.

President Obama has been actively in communication with China in recent days regarding this and other matters; however the work of Obama and Clinton has failed to bring the hoped for outcome.

From the BBC — Thursday, May 27, 2010

The streets of Seoul, S. Korea, are thick with protesters angered by threats and overtures from the North. North Korea has announced that emergency measures, usually in place to prevent an accidental sea clash have been scrapped.  An official spokesman from Pyongyang, North Korea is quoted as saying: "In connection with this [blame from Seoul] we will completely stop using international maritime ultra-short wave walkie-talkies and will immediately cut off the communication line that was opened to handle an emergency situation."  The North  expresses displeasure at the blaming from Seoul for the torpedo attack in March. South Korea meanwhile is conducting anti-submarine drills and dropping depth charges in anticipation of Pyongyang hostility.

We will begin to see in the days ahead what will become of this sinking, this loss of life, and we hope that future escalation, future warfare can be avoided.

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About John Lake

John Lake had a long and successful career in legitimate and musical theater. He moved up into work behind the camera at top motion pictures. He has done a smattering of radio, and television John joined the Blogcritics field of writers owing to a passion for the liberal press, himself speaking out about the political front, and liberal issues. Now the retired Mr. Lake has entered the field of motion picture, television, and video game (now a daily gamer!) critique. His writing is always innovative and immensely readable!
  • Practical Thinker

    NK leader appears to have serious medical issues and is concerned about succession for his son. The power structure within NK wants to maintain their status with or without Kim or his son. They know they are internationally outcast and have no concerns about that or their people. Their only benefactor, China, does not want a situation were there are millions of refugees crossing the border.

    NK’s military may have outdated weapon systems but 1) they still can field one of the largest armies ( in excess of 1MM active duty); 2) level Seoul within hours of conflict (concealed border artillery and r0ckets) ; 3) are not concerned about their own losses.

    If NK believes that 1) the endgame is here and 2) they can cause significant havoc — perhaps capturing in a blitzkrieg manner a percentage of the 28,000 American troops, then they perhaps believe that they can negotiate another beneficial truce especially if they believe that the US military is too big and too slow to respond and that American political leadership is too soft and will sue for cessation of hostilites. ( Think Vietnam POW-MIAs and American bodies in Mogadishu).

    I suspect that the NK’s believe that they have a better than even chance to succeed.

  • Doug Hunter

    I think this is just more yapping from the North. They know they can sink a ship without any real retaliation… so they did. They’re into brinkmanship, not suicide. The danger is that their little game could become real, but I consider it very unlikely.

  • Marcia Neil

    The same people who learned German and Japanese have also learned Korean? what’s so unusual about that?

  • The North Koreans are basically interested in making war. It may not necessarily be against South Korea, but, they may view the Americans as soft and the south as conquerable (see comment #1).

    However, the North Koreans have been active elsewhere [Link deleted by Comments Editor, as there is no point in linking to a pay to view article]. As I’ve warned for years, the North Koreans might well precipitate a war here for the requisite amount of money. It appears that the Iranians are providing that money.

  • Conducting war on its own dime – that is to say against South Korea – could be very dangerous for North Korea. But conducting war on somebody else’s dime – as we see noted below at Debkafiles – could be very profitable to the north.

    Coordinating attacks on both fronts – east Asia and west Asia – so that they occur at the same time – only increases the chances for the north to succeed in aggression against the south on the Korean peninsula.
    From Debkafiles Weekly Report – NO URL LINKS AVAILABLE – North Korean army on war readiness
    DEBKAfile Special Report

    25 May: North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il ordered his military to prepare for all-out war after Barack Obama ordered the 28,000 US soldiers stationed in Korea to “work closely with the Republic of Korea to ensure readiness and deter future aggression.”

    Military observers in the Korean Peninsula and Japan were predicting limited skirmishes on land, sea and air or even that North Korea might go all the way to test-fire a nuclear warhead for the first time. Iran is closely following the crisis – especially China’s reactions, which have disappointed Washington’s hopes of a move to calm the dispute caused by the North Korean torpedo attack on a South Korean Chenan in March.

    DEBKAfile’s military sources point to the Korean crisis’s impact on current Middle East war tensions. North Korea and Iran have worked closely together in their clandestine nuclear weapons programs. The two rogue powers often pursue the same diplomatic tactics for fobbing off international pressures. For Syrian president Bashar Assad, the brazenly defiant Kim Jong-Il is a role model.
    Above all, Pyongyang is the primary source of nuclear technology and sophisticated missiles for Iran and Syria.

    26 May: Syrian points 1,000 ballistic missiles, Hizballah 1,000 rockets at Israel
    DEBKAfile Exclusive Report

    26 May: The colossal Syrian – Hizballah missile deployment funded by Iran points in only one direction: Israel. It is controlled from a joint Iran -Syria – Hizballah -Hamas command center established in March at Syrian GHQ in Damascus for coordinating attacks on Israeli military and civilian sites, including the Tel Aviv region’s dense population.

    Syria’s production lines have been humming for five months converting its missiles from liquid-fuel to the more accurate solid-fuel ballistic missiles, with the help of North Korea experts.

    Syria has smuggled most of its stock of liquid-fuel powered ballistic missiles over to Hizballah in Lebanon, while its own production lines have been working day and night for five months to upgrade its stock solid fuel-propelled missiles, so improving their accuracy. North Korean military engineers and technicians are employed on those production lines.


    More than anything else, this escalation in aggression by North Korea – and its willingness to aid others in destructive activities aimed at genocide via war – is illustrative of the inability or unwillingness of the United States to prevent war from breaking out – anywhere in the world.

  • Les Slater

    To me this smells of ‘Made in USA’. Remember the Maine and Tonkin Gulf?

  • STM

    I’m surprised you think that Les in this case; and North Korea isn’t a communist nation, it’s a twisted version of Stalinism, a cult of personality that is killing its own people so that a few aparatchiks can life in obscene luxury (obscence compared to what the bulk of North Koreans are allowed to experience) … which is something else again.

    You know, sometimes things just aren’t “made in the USA”, believe it or not. I know you know that, too. But what makes you think the US wants to engage in a war that would doubtless be of unbelievable ferocity at a time it can barely afford to be waging another serious war elsewhere Iin Afghanistan) and trying to keep what remains of a peace doing its best to blossom in Iraq.

    I agree with some of what you write … but not this time.

  • Les Slater

    I’m disappointed to hear you start by pointing out that North Korea may not be a state to my liking. This is not my criteria. I have argued against accusations of particular motivations of the U.S. in the past and will continue to do so as I see them.

    “…what makes you think the US wants to engage in a war that would doubtless be of unbelievable ferocity at a time it can barely afford to be waging another serious war…”

    The U.S. doesn’t always go in with guns blazing, at least not at first. Iran, which I only support on the basis it is a sovereign state, is a case in point. The U.S. is using the pretense of alleged nuclear weapons development to put the economic and diplomatic screws to it.

    Also Cuba, the U.S. is no position to militarily attack it. Everybody would laugh at the U.S. of accusing Cuba of an explicit military aggression against it so they make up some other stories. The idea is to harm the country economically and politically.

    Look at the weapons of mass destruction and complicity with 9/11 terrorist accusations against Iraq.

    I would think people might have learned something by now.

  • STM

    Victor, I just think the US gets the blame for a lot of stuff it doesn’t deserve.

    The US is a superpower and is perceieved sometimes as a bully. Perceptions aren’t always right, though; empire building does require a certain amount of juggling and underhanded behaviour (I know, I come from a background of a nation bent on anglo empire building). There is much over which the US does deserve to cop a mouthful, but not, I suspect, in this case.

    I’d bet London to a brick the US, while hoping North Korea collapses under the weight of its own crap, would love for that border stay nice and peaceful – and for as long as is humanly possible.

  • John Lake

    There is a perception that anyone who aggressively promotes warfare, with nuclear arms is simply trying to win some economic favor. In some cases this simplistic view may be true. In the case of North Korea, I doubt those issues have any impact.
    If North Korea fires a nuclear missile, 1) it may not be a test, and 2.) such firing will very likely lead to an all out war, unprecedented.

    the nations of the world have us cornered. The G.W. Bush aggression, and lack of communication created a great hostility toward the U.S. We are in a very uncertain position. We are waging war in Afghanistan, still supporting volatile Iraq. We are dedicated to support Israel and we have an agreement to protect Thailand. We have vowed to defend South Korea. We are experiencing an oil leak more vast than can be imagined. (question: If that well is producing that many gallons of oil daily, spilling into the ocean, and if that oil company has claimed oil intake at less than a quarter of that amount, what becomes of the unreported oil??) Getting back to my point — I wouldn’t want to be in President Obama’s shoes. To make matters worse, he is supposed to maintain our global superiority without raising taxes.

    And why are we negotiation with Japan to allow our Marines to stay there?

    I’m in the middle of a weekend here; more later!

  • “The U.S. is using the pretense of alleged nuclear weapons development to put the economic and diplomatic screws to it.”

    It’s called killing you softly with kindness.

    In line with Fukuyama’s idea of capitalism marching triumphant, hand in hand with the institutions of liberal democracy, in The End of History and the Last Man.

  • John Wilson

    The whole game changes when Kim Song Il dies. Will his son ascend, or will there be an all-out factional fight? Hilary should be plumbing China to know what the expectations can be from Chinese leaders.

  • Roger, let’s try not to elevate a real crisis into some high flown philosophical dog and pony show. Let’s leave Hegel, Marx, Foucault and Fukuyama and all the other theorists in their bookcases for a while and look at some scary facts, along with the scary possibilities they portend.

    This is a situation that can mean a real war – with real missiles, real dead and, if the Persians are not held in check, lots of poison gas clouds floating across the Middle East, killing thousands if not millions.

    Frankly, if done right, the USA can be marginalized by attacks on both South Korea and Israel at the same time. My comments #4 & #5 here are designed to raise that possibility in your minds, so that you can see what has been obvious to me for quite some time. I don’t think the pot-smoking, lazy brained neo-hippies of the Obama “administration” can figure out what to do with four hot wars at once – and that’s what appears to be on the horizon. That leaves the victims of these attacks to figure out how to handle it on their own.

    For Israel, marginalizing the United States would be a benefit. We would be able to deal with our Arab and Persian enemies as they need to be dealt with, instead of looking over our shoulder for our main enemy’s (America’s) approval. For South Korea, I don’t know. Every military scenario I’ve seen on the possible fighting leaves us with a Seoulless South Korea, even if there is a South Korean victory.

  • It was but a side point, Ruvy, in response to Les.

    As to the North Korea-South Korea conflict, that I think is a dog and pony show. North Korea wants certain concessions, and it will probably get it. (Besides, the latest episode was but a response to an earlier act of aggression by the South vs the North – also involving a vessel. In short, the usual game people play.

  • Tell you what, Ruvy, why don’t you abandon all your pet little theories instead?

    I’m no fan of the pseudo science that is philosophy but at least there is some effort at reasoning underpinning the exercise, rather than the dated moralising, pessimism and superstition you espouse…

  • Oh, and there are no facts in your #13, just theories, so you aren’t even living up to your own words.

  • Chris,

    I can’t quite afford to “abandon my pet theories”. First of all, abandoning a pet shows a lack of class. Secondly, my neighbors tell me stories about the Gulf War in 1991. They use to pull up lawn chairs at night and watch the sky for the Scuds coming from Iraq from 3 February onwards. They would fly in quickly from the east and strike targets in Tel Aviv, which is about 30 miles or so west of here.

    The Iraqis only sent 39 Scuds to hit this country. If HizbAllah were to attack from the north, the show would be a lot more “entertaining”. If the Republic of Ireland were considering attacking the UK with missiles, you’d be “theorizing” as well – or leaving the Isle of Wight for Spain. Since I’m not leaving here, I’ll just pull up a lawn chair and watch the “show”, with the hope that “the lobsters and the turtles waiting on a shingle” don’t force us to “join the dance” of death.

    Comment #13 is not meant to contain “facts”. It is meant to analyze the facts brought to your attention in comment #5. And now, more important things come to my attention….

    Good day.

  • Ruvy, as usual, because you have no relevant or even coherent response, you resort to advanced waffling.

    Although it is almost always a mistake to engage with your poor logic and writing, I will just point out that if, in some bizarre parallel universe, the Republic of Ireland was considering attacking the UK, they wouldn’t be targeting the Isle of Wight in any case. More importantly, unlike yourself, I wouldn’t be intimidated by threats from a much smaller and poorly armed country and then go and move to the area they were going to target, so knock it off with the self-serving whining, which impresses nobody – apart from possibly yourself.

    Finally, to get to the only point you have made here, you yourself wrote in #13 “Let’s … look at some scary facts” but did not actually include any, just your morbid little fantasies and pointless speculations.

    I love the way you try to attack people who correct your empty rhetoric by waffling; weak attempts at snide remarks; and then attempt to dismiss them with empty claims of “more important things” to attend to.

    It is so delightful, in a tragic and rather depressingly predictable way, how you prove your shallow self-serving stance so regularly here, whilst apparently convincing yourself that you serve a just cause when actually you are driving people away from both yourself and your country. I believe that to be irony, albeit utterly lacking in humour.

  • Les Slater

    The latest issue of the Militant is now out online with its lead article on the North Korea situation. There are links to an editorial and related articles at bottom of page.

  • An alternative account, Les, but I don’t think you’re going to convince many here who are not quite ready to adopt the thesis of US imperialism.

    Give is a few more years.

  • The interesting question is – how come the People’s Republic of China doesn’t come to North Korea’s aid to alleviate their dismal economic situation?

  • Les Slater

    Alternative account? It’s quite factual and totally free of hyperbole.

  • Alternative, Les, to “the prevailing one.”

    I was being tactful lest I offend many of my BC colleagues.

  • Les Slater

    Don’t read into it what’s not there.

  • Meaning?

  • Les Slater

    I have more faith in the intelligence of those that are here on BC.

  • Intelligence, definitely. They’re all so cleaver and intelligent defending their own pet position, it’s sickening. No, I don’t have your kind of faith, not until they be shaken out of their boots.

    Besides, I try to engage in these kinds of debates one on one – one “enemy” at a time. But I suppose your posting the article for the general audience serves its purpose too, in a quite kind of way.

    It’s like sewing the seeds. One never knows what kind of harvest you will reap.

  • Les Slater

    re – 25

    “…I don’t think you’re going to convince many here who are not quite ready to adopt the thesis of US imperialism.”

    Neither I nor the article supposes such.

  • Well, we have no argument then.

  • Les Slater

    I would be very interested in STM’s take on the article.

  • Well, you’re going to have to track him down. He’s on another thread – the Memorial Day.

  • Cannonshop

    #21 because the Chinese are good with their money? Given that China’s been strengthening their economic ties to South Korea, if it drops in the pot, Kim Jong Il may find himself all by himself with no PRC to come to his rescue (Mao’s been dead a long time, Communism as economics in China’s been dead only a little less time…)

    Les: the main flaw in your “Made in America” Hypothesis, is that North Korea Told the world they fired that torpedo, no denials were issued, they SAID they did it. The other fatal flaw in your Tonkin Gulf hypothesis, is that there’s physical evidence-the Gulf of Tonkin incident had none of that.

  • Les Slater

    “…the main flaw in your ‘Made in America’ Hypothesis, is that North Korea Told the world they fired that torpedo, no denials were issued, they SAID they did it.

    Main flaw? They have always denied it. See my #19 in this thread.

  • Les Slater

    Many in South Korea do not buy government’s response to sinking of the Cheonan, At polls, South Korea conservatives pay for response to Cheonan sinking

  • John Wilson

    The NoKos deny it in the international sphere, but at home they have handed out Hero badges to the crew.

  • Les Slater

    John, you care to provide any reference?

  • I agree with your analysis in #32, Cannon, the first part.

  • chris morris

    i think that the us would be out gunned russia china iran syria. all want the usa to fail. the best tread carefully or there will be war and not the out come of any other wars

  • john lake

    June 16
    We note that the North Koreans are still
    and now more strongly threatening war. And I must question why, given their strength and independence, do they continue to deny the sinking?