Once again, the world media are busily telling their audience that “the heightened tensions in Korea are creating a risk of war”. And once again, these panicky reports are met with little – if any – interest by the vast majority of Korea watchers and, for that matter, the South Korean public.
This quietness has reasons: First, Koreans – and Korea experts, too – have seen similar developments many times. Second, there are valid reasons to be certain that the tensions have no chance to escalate. Both sides are seriously afraid of war, and rightly so.
At first glance, the recent events look like a textbook case of escalation. First, a landmine exploded in the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ), which divides the two Korean states. South Korean soldiers were maimed, and the South Korean military claimed that the mine had been stealthily installed by the North Koreans. In retaliation, the South’s military switched on massive loudspeakers, which had been silent since 2004, and began to broadcast propaganda across the DMZ, targeting the North Korean military personnel.
Outraged, the North Koreans shelled the loudspeakers, killing nobody. Then, South Korean cannons shot back. Finally, the exchange of fire was followed by an exchange of bellicose statements and diplomatic gestures, and North Koreans gave an ultimatum – demanding the loudspeakers be switched off.
Not so aggressive this time
All these events might appear dangerous to foreigners, but this is not the case with Koreans who witness similar incidents occurring every few years. In 2010, North Koreans torpedoed a South Korean warship, the South Korean government retaliated with a ban on nearly all trade with – and aid to – their northern neighbour. Angry exchanges continued for a while, culminating in North Korean artillery shelling a South Korean island, killing some civilians.
Even the rhetoric hasn’t been particularly aggressive this time: North Korea declared merely a “semi-state of war”. Back in 2013, the North Koreans said their country was already at war, and the actual fighting would start within days, and the evacuation of diplomatic personnel from Pyongyang was officially proposed. Predictably, this proposal was ignored by foreign diplomats who understood that this was just another episode of a never-ending diplomatic/military soap opera.
Indeed, it is clear by now that neither side wants war, since neither side has much to gain from it. The combination of geography and politics has long ago made a new Korean War a lose-lose option for both sides.
For the North Koreans, there are very little chances to win a war. Among military analysts, including those from countries close to North Korea, there exists a near consensus about the prospects of such a confrontation: the North would certainly lose, and very soon. Its military is armed with antiquated weapons, and it is poorly trained and badly run. Even the five or 10 low-yield nuclear devices the North Korean army possesses will not make much difference to the final outcome – even if somehow delivered to the intended targets (a big “if”, given the absence of delivery systems in North Korea).
Even though North Korea cannot win a war, it can still inflict damage on the South. Its nuclear devices may not be powerful enough to incapacitate the South Korean military, but they can kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. Even without the use of nuclear weapons, in the first hours of a full-scale confrontation, North Korea can destroy a significant part of Seoul.
The vast metropolitan (or Greater Seoul) area, where nearly half of all South Koreans live, is located right on the DMZ, within shooting range of North Korean artillery. Even if the heavily fortified positions of North Korean guns and missile launchers are destroyed soon, the artillery barrage would kill a large number of people and irreversibly damage the vulnerable city. Furthermore, the military advance into the North is not going to be easy nor bloodless.
In other words, South Korea would probably win a full-scale war, but it would emerge as a state with a heavily damaged economy. It would also face the nearly impossible burden of developing the conquered North, one of Asia’s poorest countries.
So, the situation is an impasse, and this has long been understood by both sides. Hence, relations between the two Korean states have been reminiscent of a ballet: there are times when both sides engage in diplomatic and economic cooperation, and there are times when both sides make moves calculated to look tough, but take care to ensure that nothing really dangerous happens.
It is not clear whether it was the North Koreans who installed the landmine whose detonation started the current confrontation. But the North Korean government had recently taken a confrontational approach to the South – largely because South Korea has stubbornly refused to make economic concessions to the North.
The South’s military reacted in a predictable way: the last few years they have pledged to be tough. The propaganda loudspeakers were turned on, and it was time for the North Koreans to demonstrate their toughness by shelling the loudspeakers. The next and final step so far was a South Korean artillery counter-strike.
What will happen next? If the experience of earlier confrontations is any indication, we cannot rule out another round or two of violence, accompanied by outbursts of bellicose rhetoric and mutual accusations, followed by the slow defusion of tensions.
Alternatively, and more likely, the violent phase of the usual diplomatic ballet is already over, so the defusion will start in the next few days. Of course, the defusion stage will be accompanied by mutual accusations and face-saving threats, but this is how such games have been played in the past and are likely to be played again and again in the foreseeable future.