The South Korean deputy minister of defense, Lee Yong-geul, acknowledged that artillery units had been firing test shots on Tuesday afternoon close to the North Korean coast, from a battery on the South Korean island of Paeknyeongdo. But he denied Pyongyang’s charge that the shots had crossed the sea border.While skirmishes between the two countries have not been uncommon in recent years, the clash appeared to have been the most serious in decades and came amid heightened tensions over the North’s nuclear program. An American nuclear scientist who recently visited the North said he had been shown a secret and modern enrichment facility.Well, if you see someone firing artillery in your direction and you know that guy's not friendly, can you really interpret it as anything other than aggression, even if it is only supposed to be part of an annual exercise? I'm not defending North Korea here at all. I'm just trying to imagine how the situation became what it is. Some nervous trigger happy NK soldiers may have been briefed about how this SK 70,000 troop exercise was training to invade the homeland; suddenly they heard all this artillery firing, panicked, and decided to fire back. That's the scenario that makes the most sense in my mind. Otherwise, it was a carefully calculated event by North Korea's leadership to use the South Korean exercise to justify a small attack and lay blame on South Korea. Or there was something else that's not crossing my mind. Who knows?
The important questions. Firstly, will this escalate to war? The sinking of the Cheonan in March certainly didn't. North Korea denied being behind that incident, but international experts that investigated the sinking could only conclude that it was North Korea. However, there were no real significant repercussions against North Korea; certainly no military reprisals. This is especially interesting to note because the March attack was unprovoked, while North Korea could argue that this one was provoked.
Is this attack really any different? It feels a bit different. It's not just a ship at sea that was sunk, actual soil was attacked. More people died in the ship's sinking for sure (46 sailors to be exact), but I wonder which has a bigger impact on a nation's psyche? A ship at sea could be easily abstracted away from one's own life, despite the number of deaths. Meanwhile, a direct hit on home soil may incite much more close-to-home fear and outrage, despite causing only 2 deaths. Or maybe not. I have no idea, but if it were me, I'd be more spooked by the home soil getting attacked, even if it is an outlying island. If South Koreans in general agree with that sentiment, that alone could cause an escalation to war. If it doesn't great, but South Korea would just look more and more like like the nerdy wimp that the class bully uses to cheat on his homework and get lunch money. This also is not a good scenario because you don't want the bully to get any more belligerent than he already is; you want him to tone it down.
The more interesting question is if it does escalate to war, how will the world's players react? Will they ignore it and treat it like a regional dispute in which they shouldn't get involved? Most likely not, as the region is too strategically important to the world's economic output, which currently needs all the help it can get. However, it's interesting to note how wars correlate with power swings. After the two world wars, Germany became a regional player who never regained its political clout, the UK lost its superpower status, and the up and coming USA emerged to lead the way for the future, despite having endured the Great Depression only just previously to the second war. Many might say it was the war that enabled them to rev up the engines that were established in the roaring 1920s but collapsed in the 1930s, especially since the USA came late to the party. Europe slaughtered itself, then the USA came to save the day when almost everyone was tapped out. Obviously, that's a very simplistic summary, but relevant for this discussion.
Currently, the tables are again turned. The USA is floundering due to the latest self-induced economic crisis, and it continues to have heavy military activities in the middle east. Compare this to China that has almost no military activity and is finally starting to show some economic teeth. If war breaks out again, and the USA and China get involved, who will last longer and emerge the world's superpower? This is a worst-case scenario, and a frightening one at that. The one ace that the USA has up its sleeve is that China holds massive numbers of American dollars. That's a massive amount of cash, which China wants to convert slowly and gradually into sovereign denominated/controlled wealth. It does China no good to have the USA do an economic nosedive, as it would kill China's own currency reserves. Plus the fact that the Chinese yuan is tied to the American dollar. It is in China's economic interest to let the USA die a slow and painful death, not a quick and violent death.
China's not stupid. It needs to care about its own interests. It wants to grow economically, and it wants the world's favour, not its spite. The monkey wrench is that it may be North Korea's only remaining real ally. It's dealing with a little brother that it needs to keep bailing out of jail. The kid may just want attention and feel he doesn't get it, so he causes trouble instead. Eventually, China must decide if family comes first and it will defend (and teach) its troublesome kid brother till death do them part, or give up on his kid brother because the guy causes too much trouble. What are you going to do, China? As is the trend these days (disliked by some), you have the most power to resolve this situation, not the USA, Europe, Japan, or any other party.
Of course, there's that ever-so-strange conspiracy theory that maybe this is in fact good for China; some might think that the combination of the economic crisis and more war is the best way for the USA to die its slow and painful death. I just hope that if that happens, I'm not caught up in the middle of it, since I'm living over here now, huh?
I'm betting that this will end up like the Cheonan incident. Lots of outrage, but no real repercussions. Then we continue as normal until the next incident. Ad infinitum.