What’s dif­fer­ent this time in Korean stand­off?

The China Post - - COMMENTARY - BY FOSTER KLUG

For years, North Korea’s litany of threats has been largely dis­missed — Seoul, af­ter all, is still not drown­ing in a “sea of fire,” de­spite Py­ongyang’s re­peated prom­ises to make it so.

As the clock ticks down on a Satur­day ul­ti­ma­tum for the South to re­move pro­pa­ganda loud­speak­ers or face war, how­ever, there’s some worry that Py­ongyang could fi­nally mean what it says. So what’s dif­fer­ent this time? Partly, it’s North Korea’s ap­par­ent will­ing­ness to back up an ear­lier vow to at­tack the anti-Py­ongyang loud­speak­ers and also on the speci­ficity of its Satur­day dead­line.

There was sur­prise when South Korea’s mil­i­tary re­ported Thurs­day that North Korea had fired across the bor­der, and was then met by dozens of shells from the South. If the North at­tacked once, some ar­gue, it may be more likely to back up its new­est threat, es­pe­cially if a very spe­cific dead­line is be­ing ig­nored, as Seoul has in­di­cated it will do.

The new sense of worry also comes from un­cer­tainty about the young, third gen­er­a­tion leader now at the helm in the North, Kim Jong Un.

While ear­lier North Korean lead­ers — the founder, Kim Il Sung, and his son Kim Jong Il — were seen as mas­ters of brinks­man­ship, men who knew how to play a dan­ger­ous game where threats and provo- cations were pushed to a strain­ing point, but not to break­ing, to ex­tract con­ces­sions and aid, Kim Jong Un is seen as lack­ing the same savvy, ex­pe­ri­ence and, af­ter a se­ries of bloody, high-level gov­ern­ment and mil­i­tary purges, the nec­es­sary good coun­sel.

With tens of thou­sands of troops and mil­i­tary hard­ware fac­ing off along a bor­der within easy strik­ing range of Seoul’s 10 mil­lion res­i­dents, a nag­ging un­cer­tainty about what Kim will do makes it harder to ig­nore threats of war, even if past dec­la­ra­tions have of­ten been bom­bast.

There has been blood­shed in skir­mishes in re­cent decades but the fight­ing has not es­ca­lated. The risk of things get­ting out of hand seems greater now be­cause South Korea, in the wake of a hu­mil­i­at­ing ex­change in 2010, when a sur­prise North Korean ar­tillery at­tack killed four, has in­structed its mil­i­tary to hit back much harder if at­tacked.

Even so, and grant­ing the im­por­tant caveat that pre­dict­ing North Korea’s be­hav­ior in ad­vance is largely a fool’s er­rand, there are still some im­por­tant signs that ten­sions may ease.

For the most part, North Korea’s au­thor­i­tar­ian lead­er­ship, while seen by many out­siders as un­pre­dictable, is over­whelm­ingly con­sis­tent on one ma­jor point: The Kim fam­ily’s rule must be pro­tected.

While proud and in­cred­i­bly sen­si­tive to per­ceived slights from the out­side, and there­fore fu­ri­ous over the crit­i­cism be- ing piped across the bor­der on the South Korean loud­speak­ers, Py­ongyang is re­luc­tant to do any­thing to jeop­ar­dize the allpow­er­ful po­si­tion the Kims have en­joyed since found­ing the coun­try in 1948.

In­sults must be an­swered, of course, in over-the top state media pro­pa­ganda and in dec­la­ra­tions from troops and cit­i­zens show­cas­ing a will­ing­ness to crush the en­emy. But this is largely for the ben­e­fit of a do­mes­tic au­di­ence that can­not be al­lowed to see Kim Jong Un in any­thing but a heroic light.

Push­ing things to a full mil­i­tary con­flict is seen as sui­cide. The United States sta­tions tens of thou­sands of troops in South Korea, and both Seoul and Washington far out­class Py­ongyang in their weapons’ tech­nol­ogy and ef­fec­tive­ness. North Korea could do se­ri­ous dam­age to Seoul — even rusty ar­tillery, when plen­ti­ful and close-by, can be deadly — but a war would even­tu­ally de­stroy the Kim fam­ily.

North Korea has con­structed face-sav­ing sce­nar­ios and turned back from the brink be­fore, and both sides seem to have pulled their punches in the ini­tial con­flict, re­port­edly send­ing their shells into re­mote ar­eas.

De-es­ca­la­tion may also be more likely be­cause this stand­off comes as 80,000 troops from the United States and South Korea par­tic­i­pate in an­nual sum­mer war games. While North Korea hates the drills and calls them prepa­ra­tion for a north­ward at­tack, now is a par­tic­u­larly bad time to start a war.

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