Monday, December 13, 2010

A Worthwhile Show of Force?

The Republic of Korea (ROK) and the United States’ militaries are conducting routine multi-national live fire exercises today amidst a tense situation with North Korea. The continuation of these drills and the plans for further military training exercises amounts to a fair show of force despite North Korean warnings of retaliation. The publicity behind these exercises results from the recent belligerency on the part of North Korea and tough rhetoric reminiscent of the Korean War. With some calling for a cooling of tensions to avoid war, one might ask whether these actions are in the best interests of the shaky ceasefire or in the interests of the US.

Peninsular relations have not been overwhelmingly cordial since the armistice agreement in 1952. Tensions between the two countries have risen and fallen over the decades due to multiple provocative actions. In August of 1976, for instance, North Korean soldiers attacked a group of ROK and US Army soldiers trimming a tree near the Demilitarized Zone, killing two US officers and wounding the other members of the party. The events of the last nine months, however, have amounted to the worst since the end of the war.

The March 2010, sinking of the South Korean vessel Cheonan included ambiguity as North Korea denied sinking the vessel and even wrapped it in a conspiracy involving the US.
Last month, there was no ambiguity when the North fired 170 artillery shells targeting the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, eliciting a response of 80 shells from the South. Some hawks in South Korea are requesting more dramatic escalation, including a request for the US to deploy tactical nukes to the 38th Parallel (Economist). Given Seoul’s proximity to the border, the South is wary that provocation will bring more flagrant responses from the North.

The ROK and US forces should continue to execute training exercises, despite the warnings from Kim Jong Il. While US forces have been so focused on rotating in and out of Iraq and Afghanistan, the skills of conducting conventional warfare have waned. These drills will increase the forces’ proficiency in properly fighting maneuver warfare, in the unlikely event that the North initiates low level raids or incursions. Meanwhile, Kim family threats, believed by me to be empty, will only reduce the already minimal respect for the North Korean leadership on the world stage.

The US should not, however, egg on the South in an attempt to heighten tensions. Some believe that military action by the South is inevitable as the South is fed up with the North’s actions. While all out war is unlikely, America will have to play a much more nuanced geopolitical game with China. I would not amount our show of force via training exercises as egging on, or as playing Russian roulette with nukes. US-ROK must find a way to come out of these tensions on top, and this will be a symbolic but benign enough way to do so.

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