The Guns of December

It's about time South Korea started shooting back.

Korea Pool/Getty Images
Korea Pool/Getty Images

It is hard to recall a better example of successful deterrence than what failed to happen on Monday, Dec. 20, on the Korean peninsula. That was the planned date of a South Korean artillery drill on Yeonpyeong Island, just seven and half miles from the North Korean mainland, but 50 miles from Incheon, the nearest South Korean port. Determined to intimidate Seoul into calling off the artillery exercise — 94 minutes of live fire — Pyongyang issued a veritable cascade of threats.

First, the North Korean Foreign Ministry officially declared that because the South was so reckless, the matter would be left entirely in the hands of the military command, which had been given full freedom of action. Ratcheting it up from there, the North Korean military spokesman declared that if the South fired its guns at all, their reaction would be: fierce, devastating, drastic, and/or catastrophic, depending on the translation. But the highest note in the crescendo came from Sin Son-ho, the dapper North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, who solemnly warned that if war broke out, it would not be confined to the Korean peninsula and might easily spread worldwide.

In the event, the South Koreans fired some 1,500 howitzer shells, and North Korea fired nothing back, except for the lame complaint of their military spokesman: "The South’s vile military provocations do not deserve even a passing notice."

Ominous is the right tone in the threatening business, not wild exaggeration, as we all learned in my elementary school in Palermo, Sicily, from the luckier kids whose fathers were ranking Mafiosi. Yet despite its overheated language, North Korea had credibility on its side: Just a month earlier, on Nov. 23, it did react to a Southern live-fire drill on Yeonpyeong Island with an artillery barrage that wrecked dozens of houses, damaged and set afire military base buildings, wounded 18 civilians, and killed four, including two South Korean marines. It also frightened the population at large, which knows full well that the North has tens of thousands of guns, howitzers, mortars, rockets, and missiles that could quickly devastate the capital city of Seoul, whose northern edges are less than 25 miles from the border.

In very different ways, that bloody episode in November marked a low point: not only for North Korea, whose aggression was entirely blatant, but also for South Korea, whose deterrence has plainly failed; for the U.N. Security Council, which was reduced to impotence by China’s refusal to condemn North Korea; and for various peace-mongering interlopers, who foolishly echoed the Security Council’s dispiriting call for "restraint" from both sides.

Even amid that inane company, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter stood out: His own spectacularly ill-judged response was to call for bilateral U.S.-North Korean talks. Nothing sounds more logical — after all, only madmen talk to themselves as opposed to an interlocutor, and it is with enemies that one must talk, even more so than with friends.

But in that particular case, "bilateral" would have meant to talk about the Korean peninsula without the government of South Korea at the table — giving the greatest possible political victory to Pyongyang by confirming in spades its central claim that it is the only true Korean government, while South Korea is a mere American puppet. Without seemingly understanding what he was saying, Carter explained the need for bilateral talks by noting that "Leaders in Pyongyang consider South Korea’s armed forces to be controlled from Washington." Hence the very fact of negotiating at all would have been amply destructive, simultaneously delegitimizing South Korea’s democratic government and anointing the bizarrely monstrous Kim dynasty as Korea’s sole legitimate rulers.

Only a month later, and just a day before the momentous Dec. 20 non-event, there was more ill-conceived and damaging interloping in conjunction with the visit to North Korea of Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico. As a seasoned former envoy who had dealt with the regime before, Richardson made all the right moves, said nothing damaging, and emerged with the worthwhile North Korean promise to allow the entry of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear inspectors once again. But accompanying Richardson was the supposed North Korea expert Tony Namkung (he has claimed he has been there 30 times — always a bad sign) who played the "useful idiot" role to perfection, with the added resonance of speaking from Pyongyang itself. Regarding the imminent Yeonpyeong live-fire drill, his words only added credibility to Northern threats, while seeking to undermine Southern resolve: "There is no doubt in my mind that there will be a [North Korean armed] response," said Namkung. "The only issue is whether they will once again target civilians [as well].… the [North Korean] military has said that there can be no forgiveness, period."

Fortunately, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his ministers and military advisors knew better than to listen to the U.N. Security Council, Jimmy Carter, the likes of Namkung, or indeed North Korean threats. They had finally realized that when it came to deterrence, they had a lot of catching up to do.

Seoul had done nothing whatsoever to punish the North for the Nov. 23 Yeonpyeong bombardment — leading many in the South to wonder why so much money had to be spent on the latest and best weapons for the South Korean armed forces if they were never to be used. By then many realized that if the South had acted more vigorously beforehand, against an even deadlier attack — the March 26 sinking of the South Korean navy corvette Cheonan that left 46 sailors dead — it might have prevented the November barrage.

After a multinational investigation quickly uncovered that the Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo launched by a North Korean mini-submarine, the Security Council duly condemned the attack but — at Chinese insistence — failed to identify the attacker. South Korea protested, complained, and did nothing of substance to punish North Korea. As Dec. 20 approached, Lee — who had been elected as a hard-liner moreover — along with his ministers and military chiefs were clearly failing in their very first duty: to safeguard the lives of their fellow citizens by deterring North Korean attacks.

Of course, the United States remains the guarantor of ultimate security with its armed forces in place, which include a total of some 28,500 service personnel mostly in the Army’s 2nd Division and two Air Force fighter wings — with reinforcements from Japan if needed. But their task can only be to deter an actual war, not to deal with mere hit-and-run incidents that are over in minutes or hours, nor to retaliate against North Korea for them. It is the South Koreans who are responsible for the day-to-day security of their country. And it was precisely this responsibility that South Korean leaders and military chiefs evaded in March and again in November: partly no doubt because they were caught by surprise; partly because even a right-leaning government cannot ignore the influence of the remarkably anti-American pacifist left on public opinion (American G.I. trysts with their grandmothers are still bitterly resented); partly because South Korean big business is more worried by the consequences of action than inaction; and finally, because the government in Seoul still wanted to believe that China would solve the problem for them.

It is only now that it has become totally clear that China positively wants a somewhat aggressive North Korea, whose outrages would force the South to come to Beijing on bended knee to plead for its safety, gradually accepting suzerainty in exchange. The Chinese talk about the dangers of an all-out war but evidently they do not believe it can happen, hence their unwillingness to really pressure North Korea as they easily could.

By Dec. 20, however, all illusions spent, and with the firm support of an unflinching Obama administration, the South Koreans finally did the right thing. And they did it well: Along with realistic civil-defense plans, the evacuation of the most exposed civilians, and preparations for vigorous counterbattery fire to hit Northern guns if they shelled Yeonpyeong again, the South let it be known that if the North Koreans opened fire anywhere else, in places where it lacked enough artillery to respond in kind, it would resort to airstrikes.

In the days leading up to the drill, many South Koreans were alarmed; others understood the risks but were nevertheless satisfied that their government was finally ready to act purposefully to protect them from the North’s aggressions. But by 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 20 it was all over. The South Koreans had fired their 1,500 shells, the North Koreans had done nothing for all their wild threats, and news of their renewed acceptance of IAEA nuclear inspectors soon followed.

With North Korea’s dynastic dictatorship showing no signs of improvement and with its uniquely militarized and compulsively aggressive power structure, South Korea had better institutionalize the lesson of the Dec. 20 episode, if it is to prevent further deadly attacks on its citizens. For it, as for any state facing a permanent conflict with violent enemies, deterrence by whatever means — not necessarily just military — is the strategic equivalent of money in running a business: nothing can be done without it.

Words alone are not enough to deter. There has to be the will to act and "escalation dominance" if action becomes necessary. If there is going to be any tit for tat, the South has to ensure that its tit would inflict more damage than the North’s tat. With the North having invested over the decades in tens of thousands of artillery tubes as well as rockets and short-range missiles deployed all along the front line — from sea to sea, right across the peninsula — the South cannot hope to have more than very localized escalation dominance with guns alone.

Hence if the fighting is restricted to artillery, the North can always out-barrage the South and dominate the outcome, as it did on Yeonpyeong Island in November. Only air power can swiftly out-concentrate the North’s artillery. To be sure, South Korea’s fighter-bombers could be especially effective if they were to surprise Northern forces out in the open, unprepared for air attacks. But if the South just started to bomb targets of opportunity in response to artillery fire, this might start an entire war. Hence, just as it did before Dec. 20, the South must renounce secrecy and surprise to publicly announce that it would respond to artillery attacks with airstrikes against the offending batteries, if its own guns were not up to the job. That way, a calculated step for local escalation dominance could not be confused with an uncontrolled escalation to general war. It’s a delicate balancing act, but such are the tensions of life on the Korean peninsula these days.

One day, no doubt the North Korean regime will pass into history. But until then, the South Koreans must finally disenthrall themselves from the illusion that other countries will ensure their day-to-day security from attack — it will not be done by the United States, let alone the United Nations, and certainly not by China.

Edward Luttwak is a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace.

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