Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Is time running out for North Korea?

The recent shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong by North Korean Artillery has once more brought the world’s focus to the divided peninsula. The South Korean response to these reprehensible attacks has been highly re stained. Public and political outcry over the weak-willed response on behalf of the South Korean Military led to the resignation of ROK Defense Minister Kim Tae-young, as well as the establishment of new Rules of Engagement for ROK military forces providing a greater ability to respond to North Korean attacks with greater force..With political and public attitudes in the South shifting towards a more forceful tone, and the corresponding changes in the Rules of Engagement, there is much evidence to paint the picture that South Korean patience for North Korean agitation is rapidly running out.

The Director of National Intelligence, Admiral Dennis Blair, relayed such messages of dwindling patience this weekend. Admiral Blair, who had just recently returned from South Korea, predicted that future North Korean attacks of a similar scale will be met with ROK military response up to but not included the commencement of full-scale war with the North.

This trend towards a more stern military response to North Korean aggression is a departure from a sentiment of engagement and rapprochement with the North among the people and politicians of the South. Talk of unification and of ending the US military presence in their country have ebbed and flowed over the years in South Korean politics, but the recent uptick in aggression on the part of the North has brought such talk to a halt. With the aging Kim Jong Il approaching death, the coming ascension of 25 year old Kim Jong-un as the next ‘Dear Leader’, and possible Chinese political abandonment due to the increasingly cost of covering for Pyongyang, the Hermit Kingdom is rapidly approaching a point at which its geopolitical position in untenable.

Famine, growing societal disillusionment, and a non-existent economy have left it increasingly difficult to support the North Korean armed forced. Though their numbers rank it as the 4th largest miltiary in the world, questions remain as to just how effective PROK forces would be in any military engagement. Damage assessment from the shelling of Yeonpyeong indicates both a lack of supply and technical knowhow among North Korean forces. If this small example is indicative of a larger decay North Korean miltiary capability, then the last leg to stand on for the People’s Republic of North Korea has broken.

Perhaps it is best to view the decay of North Korea through the lens of the collapse of the regimes of the Warsaw pact in the late 1980s. In this instance, it was the collective will on behalf of both American and Soviet leadership that prevented an outbreak of hostilities as communism fell. Should North Korea enter a similar death spiral, it is incredibly difficult to imagine such an act of good faith on behalf of any North Korean leadership to go out with a whimper as opposed to a bang. It will take a concerted effort on the part of South Korea, China, and the United States to manage the collapse of North Korea. South Korea will need to take the lead on such an effort, as they have the most to lose, and gain, from the death rattle of one of history’s worst regimes.

No comments: