The point is that North Korea was effectively goaded into upping the level of tension (closing Kaesong), even though they probably did not want to. Boy-who-cried-wolf North Korea now so lacks credibility, that they were forced to escalate just to be taken seriously. If one combines that perceived need to act for credibility’s sake alone, with the ever-increasing extremism of language which previous hyperbole requires, then it is easy to see Pyongyang doing something really dangerous. North Korea is painting itself into a corner and may be goaded into escalation by external cynicism, even though the elite would rather not do so. (For students of international relations theory, this is an excellent example of action-reaction spirals taking on a life of their own.)
2. The Analysts vs. the Media
In the last few weeks I have done a fair amount of media on North Korea, and I have come away with the strong impression that the global media and the North Korea analyst community really differ on the crisis. If you watch CNN, BBC, Sky News, and other major outlets, the coverage frequently leads with North Korea and takes the threat of war very seriously. Reporters sent to Seoul or Yeonpyeong have a tendency to end their reports with lines like, ‘but these people know that their lives could be changed by a rain of missiles in a matter of minutes,’ or ‘Korea today stands on the brink of all-out war.’ Easy there, cowboy – you reporters only got off the plane at Incheon two days ago. Indeed, I mentioned during the 2010 crisis that I thought the media was flirting with alarmism then too. That may be great for ratings but only amps up the pressure on all parties. As the goading of North Korea into the Kaesong closure suggests, the media can generate a self-fulfilling prophecy if they hype the region as ‘at the brink of 1950 all over again.’ (Let’s thank god there was no Fox News during the Cuban Missile Crisis.)Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But if you listen to the analyst community, particularly those of us in Korea or with genuine local expertise, there is near unanimity that there will be no war. I have seen lots of my friends on BBC, CNN and other outlets in the last few weeks, and we are all saying the same thing: there will be no war.
My own sense that this is pretty well-known, but it is worth repeating: Pyongyang will lose a war – completely and quickly. As lots of analysts have been noting recently, North Korea’s military is clapped out and short on everything – food, fuel, spare parts. Indeed, one obvious reason for Pyongyang to acquire nuclear weapons is to shortcut the widening military gap between it and Seoul, much less the U.S. While we hear that the North Korean People’s Army (KPA) is the fourth largest force in the world, that might not actually be the case. Further, there are big questions as to its combat effectiveness and willingness to fight once the war turns and command-and-control begins to break down. (Today’s U.S. military tends to target command & control in conflicts with airpower. It is likely to do so in a second Korean conflict.) The KPA, like other, erstwhile communist militaries, is postured around WWII and the Korean War. Huge amounts of infantry, tanks, and artillery would fight in massive battles like Kursk in 1943. But that is simply not how the hi-tech U.S. and South Korean militaries will fight. North Korea is almost completely lacking in the ‘C4ISR’ (command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) technologies that structure today’s ‘networked battlefield.’ All those North Korean teens with their ‘summer of 1914’ spirit will find their divisions pummeled by stand-off strikes they can neither defend against nor respond to. American airpower in particular will be so dominant and intrusive, and Korea is geographically so narrow, that any North Korean concentrations will be easy targets. One could easily imagine Gulf War 1-style ‘roads of death’ all over again.
(The one conventional ace-in-the-hole Pyongyang has is its special forces. Estimates go as high as 200,000, and it is widely thought they will land in South Korea on mini-subs and light planes, or pour through tunnels dug under the DMZ. [In fact DMZ tours will actually take you into a few of the tunnels the South has uncovered.] We assume these spec-ops forces will create behind the lines havoc, targeting bridges, power plants, etc. Given their Korean nationality, they will not have the ‘cultural fit’ problem of German soldiers who tried this on the Americans during the Battle of the Bulge.)