Friday, May 21, 2010

"We cannot continue to dismiss actions by North Korea as 'more of the same'"

So says Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK). The question that immediately leaps to mind is something like "ok, so then what should we do?"

The Washington Post is making a big production out of the fact that Secretary Gates and Admiral Mullen refused yesterday to call North Korea's sinking of a South Korean warship (which cost 46 sailors their lives) an "act of war." The Post's Anne Flaherty pressed the two on the subject during yesterday's press conference, using the words "act of war" in no less than three separate (leading) questions:


Q Does the United States consider the sinking of the South Korean warship an act of war? And seeing as the United States has vowed to defend South Korea, what do you plan to do about it? What are your options?

SEC. GATES: Well, first of all, we certainly support the findings of the Korean -- the South Korean investigation. We obviously are in close consultation with the Koreans. The attack was against one of their ships. And we will -- naturally they would have the lead in determining the path forward. They've laid out some paths forward, and we will be consulting very closely with them as we move ahead.

ADM. MULLEN: I spoke to my counterpart yesterday. And we've been engaged with them since the incident, not just from here, but also Admiral Willard in PACOM, as well as, obviously, General Sharp. And we are all focused on that region, the stability in that region -- that needs to be sustained -- and at the same time very focused on supporting our strong ally in the Republic of Korea.

Q But could you say whether or not you agree that -- with the South Koreans that it is in fact an act of war? And can you go over some of the options that you have to

SEC. GATES: I think that -- I think basically what we've said is about all there is for us to say. We accept the findings and support the findings of the investigation. The Republic of Korea has outlined several paths forward, and we will be consulting very closely with them going forward.

Q Admiral, could you address that too, please? It's clearly an act of war, isn't it?

ADM. MULLEN: Again, I think the secretary -- we've said all we want to say on this right now. Certainly we're concerned about it. We've supported them. We've helped them in the investigation and we agree with the conclusion. They're a great friend and great ally, and we'll continue to do that.

Which makes one wonder exactly what the newspaper's trying to accomplish beyond getting a flashy headline like "SECDEF: KOREA SHIP SINKING 'ACT OF WAR'", right?

Leaving aside the pretty obvious answer to why the press would be interested in inflammatory, provocative, and frankly dangerous pronouncements from senior policymakers, what about the real substance of all this: how does this all shake out? Obviously the U.S. response is conditioned on what the South Koreans decide is necessary, but what would the Jim Inhofes of the world have us do?

How does South Korea defend itself against the aggressive actions of a nuclear-armed neighbor? Does anybody believe that a sort of tit-for-tat, you sink ours, we sink yours kind of reaction is going to accomplish a whole lot, or make something like this less likely in the future?

Seeing as we've all pretty much decided that the North Korean decisionmaking process and apparatus is entirely obscure to us, I'm not going to bother wondering out loud what the hell the DPRK gets out of something like this. Is retributive action necessary to avoid setting some sort of pussified precedent, to avoid emboldening Kim Jong Il and whoever else is running stuff up there to push even harder?

Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) says "we cannot allow North Korea to take the lives of 46 South Korean sailors with a torpedo attack and pretend it didn't occur," and I'd tend to agree with him. But that doesn't get us any closer to figuring out what we do instead, and I don't have any bright ideas.


  1. We won't do anything and they know we won't do anything. And China, which has leverage, won't either.

    Okay, this is just me as an everyday person reflecting: what do you all think of that?

    I wish I could remember the name of the CSPAN program that I watched, but the author (a book on North Korea, naturally. The author speaks the language and made the point that a scholar of the region ought to be able to do that! Digression over....) said that North Korean society must define itself around war.

    He made the point that with even in a society as closed as North Korea, there is some sense that South Koreans are richer, and if that is the case, than juche must be a failure. Thus, a war-like posture is the only way to keep the citizenry in line, so to speak.

    I hope I am getting that right. I was going to blog it, but time got away from me.

    It was the saddest thing I'd listened to in some time. Depressed the heck out of me.

    *I mentioned this in a comment thread at zenpundit the other day, but there is a graphic novel about South Korea, written by an artist that spent a short month or two there, and brought back his depressing impressions and made them into the graphic novel.

    Have not read it, but am intrigued by the idea.

  2. Oh, so the answer to your question is: pressure China. But how? I don't think we can, and even if we could, I don't get a sense that our DC crew is nimble enough to handle it.

    Again, layperson bloviating and I may be waaaay off.

  3. My first impression on reading the Q&A was that the gov't wanted to make absolutely clear that this is not considered an act of war, so the reporter extended the courtesy of asking several times so as to give Gates the opportunity to unequivocally say yes or no. (Full disclosure: I loathe the journalism "profession").

    As for the Congress critters, they can say pretty much anything they want because they don't have any real responsibilities.

    I'm guessing that the grown-ups who do have responsibilities will try to use this incident in future talks with North Korea and/or China.

  4. Aargh - graphic novel and North Korea, obviously.

    I'm exploring different teaching modalities these days - sort of brainstorming as a counterpart of sitting on a curriculum committeed.

    Can we use fiction, narrative, art in educating? I mean in very specific ways, such as weaving together microscopic images and excerpts from medical journals with a short story and so forth.

    And now, I am far off topic.

  5. Madhu -- Oh, so the answer to your question is: pressure China. But how?

    Fair enough, but yeah, so, how? And to what end? What is it that we want China to do here, put Chinese Navy O-5s in ride-along slots on every DPRK Navy ship to keep some nut-job from firing a torpedo? Obviously not. But where's the balance point between something vague like "pressure China to pressure North Korea to be more responsible" and the sort of specific asks that we know we have no hope of getting satisfaction on?

  6. Schmedlap -- My first impression on reading the Q&A was that the gov't wanted to make absolutely clear that this is not considered an act of war, so the reporter extended the courtesy of asking several times so as to give Gates the opportunity to unequivocally say yes or no.

    Having read or watched just about every public statement and press conference to happen at the SECDEF/CJCS level in the last few years, I feel confident in saying that that is NOT the message they were trying to convey. They were saying, basically, "we're not gonna get pinned down on terminology because if we do, then our options are constrained by our responsibilities under treaty/law."

  7. Money and aid, Gulliver.

    "With all other approaches failing, one last hope is often cited — China. Today, some 45 percent of all North Korean trade is with China, and between 30 and 50 percent of China’s entire foreign aid budget is spent on this one small country. So, the reasoning goes, Beijing must have tremendous leverage over Pyongyang...."

    China has enormous economic leverage.

  8. China has enormous economic leverage.

    Theoretically, sure. But the reality is more complicated. When we calculate "leverage," to some extent we're assuming that the levers of power function the same way in all polities. It's pretty clear that we don't know anything about how to influence North Korean behavior, and I'm not sure that the Chinese know any better. (And even if they do, I'm not sure we understand precisely how to influence the Chinese into influencing the North Koreans, though that's probably a less complicated issue if only because of the total impenetrability of the NK decision-making process.)

  9. Oh, wait, I didn't finish my thought, duh.

    They have leverage, but when they've cut aid in the past, the NK ignored it, and they don't want to push too hard because if the regime collapses, what happens to those millions of refugees.

    I don't know.

  10. Also, this is why we should have space colonies. Human beings are, to use an Abu M expression, bat-guano crazy.

    We went from horse-and-buggy to rockets to the moon in, like, 70 years, but in the past forty what?

    Just circling in orbit.

    Space colonies are the answer, my friends. We need to back up our human files, many times over.


  11. So, let me get this straight. THe South Koreans and Republicans in Congress categorize the sinking of the ship as something akin to an "act of war."

    When the WAPO reporter asks twice whether SecDef and CJCS agree -- and doesn't seem to get a firm answer -- she's out of bounds?

    The discursive answers that the two men gave highlight the point of the story: THere are few options available to the US and South Korea, neither of which powers seemingly all that hot on a hot war in the peninsula.

    So the press wasn't interested in provocative statements from the men (they weren't going to provide them). The reporters were interested in showing to what extremes the leaders would go to downplay what over the centuries of statecraft has been seen as most certainly an "act of war."

    This seems fairly obvious to me. I'm sure CJCS and SecDef were happy with the way that WAPO portrayed them because that was exactly the message that they hoped to convey.

    It devolved into a bureaucratic performance art piece, with the two lead roles played by the two top defense leaders.

    The press was just there to record it.


  12. This is a huge issue. Why isn't the press covering it more?

    It seems from the outside that South Korea and Japan want to take a harder line on North Korea and the Messiah [Obama the Chosen One] is making up his mind. I hope Obama says, America is with South Korea and Japan 110%, period. America will follow South Korea's and Japan's lead.

    Madhu, leverage doesn't work predictably on irrational mentally ill people, such as North Korea's rulers.

    What can China/South Korea/Japan/US do? Reduce aid to North Korea? If so the North Korean people starve and nothing changes. Eventually the North Korean humanitarian crisis forces China/South Korea/Japan/US to resume aid to North Korea.

    China is highly dependent on business with South Korea, Japan and the US; and will ultimately side with the South Koreans. The problem is that China doesn't understand the North Korean regime or how to influence them. the North Koreans have deep anger and bigotry towards China. It is a Korean and Chinese ethnic thing going back centuries.

  13. At the same time though, it seems like things are destabilizing more quickly in NK now more than any other time--between the devaluing of the currency, widespread economic challenges, KJI's worsening health, the lack of exultancy surrounding his visit to China, plus--on top of everything else--the sinking of the SK vessel, it seems like the pot is boiling pretty intensely in NK.

    I agree with Madhu--the US and China are unlikely to do anything--but I think we may not have to.

  14. "America will follow South Korea's and Japan's lead." - Anand

    America should follow the lead of client states? wtf. This has to be the most stupid shit ever written in the comment section of this blog.

    America leads. Client states follow.

    A war in Korea would not be good for us. South Korea and Japan don't decide if and when America goes to war.

    Congress must declare war first, or at least that's the way it used to work. You know, back when we used to win wars.

  15. Anonymous, South Korea and Japan are great global powers with influence all over the world. They aren't chump states. They expect and think they are entitled to American support.

    There is a difference from what the President says in public and what he says in private.

    In public the President is with South Korea and Japan one hundred percent. South Korea has been intentionally militarily attacked by North Korea. This is the worst attack since the 1953 cease fire.

    By treaty an attack on South Korea is an attack on the United States and an attack on the United States is an attack on South Korea. This is why South Korean troops are in Parwan, Afghanistan today. This is also why South Korea sent 3,600 troops to Iraq for several years. South Korea was the largest troop contributor to Iraq after the US and UK.

    America's word is its bond.

    Having said this and a bunch of other death do us part . . . we are with you to the end . . . in public. In private we should all try to find a way out of this that doesn't involve war with North Korea.

    Anonymous, America will gain a lot of goodwill in South Korea and Japan by saying the right things in public right now. This is why we should say them. We are going to need all the Japanese and South Korean help we can get to deal with:
    -climate change
    -global free trade
    -global financial reform
    -bailing out the EU and global financial sector [which might require over a trillion dollars worth of Japanese and South Korean support]
    -managing China and Taiwan
    -managing Russia
    -Afghanistan [which Japan gives $1 billion a year in aid to]
    -Iran [Japan, South Korea, India, China, EU and the US are the six biggest importers of oil in the world.]
    -every other conceivable crisis in the world.

    We need substantial Japanese and South Korean assistance to solve any and all of the world's major challenges.

    Do you realize how big and important Japan and South Korea are? Economically, their combined GDP is about 6 trillion dollars. Or more than all of Latin America, Africa and much of Asia put together.

  16. South Korea and Japan are not client states.

    A Korean war would be orders of magnitude worse for South Korea and Japan than it would be for the US. Any North Korean nuclear weapons would be aimed at South Korea and Japan, not at the US.

    South Korea and Japan want to avoid a nuclear war more than America does.

    Any nuclear attack would likely cause a global financial system collapse and another great synchronized global depression. The entire global system might collapse.

    Anonymous, are you trying to be offensive?

    Well please don't repeat this in front of a soldier from South Korea. The South Koreans might have the highest quality military in the world [note . . . highest quality doesn't mean largest and most capable]. They are also very proud. As are Japanese.

  17. Anand,

    So what does "highest quality" mean if not most capable?

    -Deus Ex

  18. Deus Ex, sorry for being unclear.

    The South Koreans are very good at the types of functions they invest in and focus on; but not as good in functions they don't invest in.

    The South Koreans haven't invested in 5th Gen fighters, aircraft carriers, C17 type airlift, FID centric military advising and capacity building for allied militaries, or a lot of other specific types of military functions.

    Every Vietnam vet I have ever discussed the Koreans with described them as awesome fighters.

    However, the Korean armed forces aren't as well rounded as US forces or have a depth of capacity in nearly as many areas as the US military does.

    As an aside, the US hasn't pushed South Korea to play a larger role in training the Iraqi Army and Afghan Army.

    In Iraq I think the reason was politics. In 2003, Pres Bush wanted a headline about 3600 Korean combat troops headed to Iraq for domestic politics back home and the legitimize the CPA and coalition forces. I also think President Bush tacitly agreed that South Korea didn't have to contribute in a major way in Afghanistan provided the Koreans had 3,600 troops in Iraq.

    However, now that the Koreans have left Iraq (in 2008) and now that we have a new President, we should pressure the Koreans to do more in Afghanistan.

    The US should absolutely stand resolutely with the Koreans and Japanese in public now. The US congress should get off their butts and pass the US/Korean free trade agreement. And the US should quietly get the South Korean's help on many specific issues:
    -an international bailout fund for EU countries and financial institutions
    -climate change
    -pressure on Iran
    -an additional 2,000 South Korean trainers for NTM-A [in addition to the Korean troops and PRT in Parwan.]
    -economic aid to Pakistan

    Quietly, the US should take advantage of the current crisis to get as much out of South Korea as possible. My suspicion is that it will work. The key is to get these things quietly, and not explicitly as part of a quid pro quo.