We continue this series of publications, having on purpose postponed publishing material on the likelihood of military conflict increasing due to “random” causes, until the time when the tension on the peninsula slightly declined.
Although the parties continue to exchange menacing statements, the words are not accompanied by actions, which could significantly increase the tension. Kaesong complex is slowly coming back to life, although many thought this project would end in the midst of the spring aggravation. Therefore, we can say that this period of aggravation has ended, as have the previous ones.
However, let us ask ourselves – “What comes next?” After all, the main problems have not gone away, and the stock of inter-Korean non-confidence is very high. Although this problem is noticed in the entourage of the President Park Geun-hye and its recovery is given major priority, if they proceed to action, the situation is more complicated: the restoration of confidence requires simultaneous actions, but it is clear from the official documents of the Republic of Korea in what direction the North must change. The South has to do something then, as a second-priority. And it is not mentioned, what exactly this is.
Lack of awareness continues to increase the mutual non-confidence. If you have a look at the official statements of the North, the South referred to in them is very different from the real one. Similarly, the North is mythologized in the South. This image of the enemy continues to dim the eyes, and its destruction will take a long time.
Finally, we must remember that today neither the North nor South are perfect bureaucracies, and this means that in case of problems caused by the internal sloppiness, the temptation not to tell tales out of school and to write everything off on the enemy is sufficiently large. It is from here rumors about invisible North Korean submarines or mysterious North Korean hackers originate.
Now let us talk about the current situation. In general, the forecasts come down to the fact that both this time and in the future, the parties will make some noise and then settle down, even if “making some noise” means a nuclear test, a military missile launch or even a next incident involving the use of arms.
However, the likelihood of an escalation into a serious conflict seems to be gradually increasing. For now, it is low – 0.5%, 1%, 2%… However, this geometric progression is deceptive.
The possibility of disaster during a failed test is not discussed. The author is concerned with other moments.
The first is a conditional factor of the “black swan”. It seems that everyone understands that “there will be no war”. It seems obvious that North Korea will not be the first to start a serious conflict (they are not suicidal!) and in the North, they believe that because of their nuclear status nobody will invade their territory.
However, this situation can lead to the fact that both in the North and in the South, the sentiments like “Let’s teach the enemies a lesson – they won’t answer with a large-scale war…” may arise. Those who like to seek the evil empire in the North ascribe the similar logic to it, though there were enough incidents pregnant with aggravation from both sides.
For example, a week after the incident on Yeonpyeong, where the North was fired upon from the South Korean territory: shell of the howitzer weapon, which, according to the authorities of the RK, was fired inadvertently (although the artillerists who read this text will understand how impossible that is) burst on the South Korean half of the de-militarized zone, almost “achieved” becoming a serious incident.
Current incidents often are similar to “dare-devilry”. To fire onto enemy territory with blank shell or training torpedo (not always pointedly), to sail or to fly into hostile waters for 2 – 20 minutes, and to annoy the enemy otherwise – for example, pointedly using the portraits of its leaders as targets (now both of them act in such a way, but the southerners were the first to start this).
As a rule, such “daredevils” understand that they are playing on people’s nerves, but believe that there is nothing serious in their actions; actions not causing direct damage will not be perceived by the public as a serious provocation, especially in the conditions of presentation of information in relation to everything connected with the DPRK. “So what, someone flew into their territory! No one was hurt!”
In addition, there is a certain “precipitate”, gradually accumulating among the military men of both countries. It comes down to the notions that “we could respond to provocations in a much tougher way, if the politicians did not interfere.”
Under Lee Myung-bak’s rule such revanchist sentiments on the part of the military (up to “if the government gives the go-ahead or at least not interferes with us, we will destroy the North in 90 hours”) were fueled by the presence of a paleoconservative fraction in the President’s entourage. However, Park Geun-hye must not ignore this point of view – especially in the case of aggravation in inter-Korean relations.
Another problem is that North Korea does not know how to fight with these “daredevils” – for ideological reasons, it is easier to respond to each incident with responding incident. In this case, the “iron curtain” hinders the understanding of how it will be presented by the mass media, as well as perceived in the framework of international law.
In addition, the northerners are backed with gradual understanding of the fact that the tactics of the “final warning” may stop working. If the statements about turning Seoul into the sea of fire and drowning its enemies in the sea remain nothing more than a pompous rhetoric and are not confirmed, they will cease to be taken seriously, “to threaten with flowery words is all that they can do.”
However, in fact, what can be done to be both an appropriate response and a demonstration of force, and thus not to cause harm to the environment or one’s neighbors. Successful training maneuvers involving many international observers are a good idea, but the protective reflex will hinder this. Proposal to send North Korean units as peacekeepers somewhere within the UN or to fight with pirates is unreal. So traditional launching or firing, as well as the total destruction of the enemy in promotional clips, are the only things that remain.
This is complemented by such a moment as the “fog of war”. Usually even the state of aggravation presupposes the presence of a sort of “hot line” between the warring parties, but all military contacts are practically broken by the cumulative efforts of the North and the South. This means that in the event of an incident, which can lead to an aggravation, the parties may not have the time or opportunity to warn each other.
Meanwhile, the situation in which both sides are under instructions to respond hard and to play it by ear, can lead to a conflict beginning due to an accidental event, which will cause a gradual escalation of armed responses, and after a series of military exchanges, the growing damage will not allow any “turning back”.
Mirages caused by ideological blinders and looking at the other side as to Mordor are overlaid on this. As a result, many propagandists in the South began to believe their own gossip and are certain that the regime is about to fall, and it only should be given a push. From the perspective of the South Korean voter and military leaders, the North is showing signs of weakness. And in the North they may believe that a serious split of society, associated with the failure of the policy of Lee Myung-bak, is evidence of a profound crisis of the regime, and having no serious contacts in the South, they may still equate this with the left and pro-North Korean sentiments.
The question may arise – what are intelligence services looking at? Foreign intelligence agencies always seem more mysterious and perfect, but alas, people are not perfect, and officials of any country are people. There is a “kiss ass” game played by both sides – “Guess what the boss wants to hear, and bring him good news”, while also trying to look like you are doing something, in varying degrees. Therefore, it should be noted that the structures involved in the analysis and forecast are not always doing their job properly, reasonable warnings can be ignored and their authors can be deemed as too cautious.
I have repeatedly drawn attention to the next factor: the situation of mutual tension increases the overall level of stress and nervous tension, as a result of which, dangerous and important decisions can be taken with a hothead, and under the influence of irrational factors or emotions.
Each of us has small, sometimes hidden phobias. These phobias almost do not interfere in ordinary life. However, the higher is the concentration of the stress, the greater is the risk that they will reveal themselves. In an extraordinary psychological situation (and country leaders almost always experience a certain amount of stress), the person usually thinking rationally, may lose adequateness.
Reasoning about mental inadequacy or irrational behavior of DPRK leaders are, of course, a kind of propaganda: feeling themselves on the defensive, representatives of older generation are unlikely to take aggressive action that is really aimed at an escalation of the conflict. However, in a crisis situation, they will try to sell their lives at a higher price, and may engage in self-destructive actions, which may kill more enemies.
In respect of Kim Jong Un, the question is to what extent the new head is more stress-resistant, when compared with his father. If the “young general” is really ambitious and an extrovert, he may experience a certain thrill, because of outer side of army life. In addition, with an active mindset, there comes a desire “to finally do something”, and this may be a factor that will increase the chances of him making an irrational decision. I rate the likelihood of this – that a person with such a character will let himself be tempted by senior people, and consider the necessity to carry out some tough demonstration of strength, without calculating the consequences in full – as very small, but worthy of consideration.
Thus, we come to the last factor, when decision on the beginning of a large conflict can be taken, not on the basis of rational and strategic considerations, but on the basis of ideological or domestic policy considerations.
For example, in case there is another incident or series of incidents which appear to be a kick in the teeth for South Korean self-esteem, Seoul can give the command to counterstrike, out of fear of losing face and the support of voters. An ideocratical regime can be provoked even more easily, since it is assumed to respond to actions insulting to its beliefs with war, even if this is self-destructive.
In addition, it is necessary to consider that both northerners and southerners “have a habit of taking politeness for concession and concession – for weakness”, and once one party steps back or to the side to reach consensus, the other begins to “exploit a success”.
Now, since the probability of conflict is not at zero, a piece of our analysis will focus on the comparison of the armies of DPRK and the Republic of Korea, because there are a number of myths relating to both one and the other.
(To be continued…)
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD Historical Sciences, Senior Research Scientist at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Science – exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.