Could South Korean Drills Spark War With North?

North Korea promises retaliation for the exercises

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North Korea has responded to South Korea's planned live-fire drills by threatening that they would consider the exercises, which are to take place near the border, as a military provocation and would possibly respond with another artillery barrage. South Korea says it will still hold the drills, which U.S. Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright warned could "start potentially a chain reaction of firing and counter-firing." How serious is the threat of violence? What can be done?

  • Why War is a 'Distinct Possibility'  Andrei Lankov writes in Foreign Policy: "For the first time in decades, a new war on the Korean peninsula appears to be a distinct probability." He cites North Korea's escalated aggression and a "bellicose" South Korea whose military leadership is "talking unusually tough." And the public agrees: "In a recent poll, 80 percent of South Koreans said they would support a military retaliation in the event of a fresh North Korean attack. Only six months ago, when a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors, merely 30 percent favored a military option."
  • Why South Korea Is Ramping Up  Foreign Policy's Joshua Keating writes that "South Korean President Lee Myung-bak's government faced widespread criticism for what was seen as a timid response to last month's attack which killed two soldiers and two construction workers, the North's first attack on a civilian area since the end of the Korean war. He has since replaced his defense minister and vowed to retaliate to future attacks with airstrikes on North Korea."
  • Despite Posturing, Neither Korea Wants War  Michael Breen writes in the Korea Times:
After several years of taking a relatively softly-softly approach with North Korea, the government in Seoul is talking about responding vigorously next time. We don’t know if this will make the North Koreans think twice or whether it could lead to escalation.

But even this policy change will not result in two sides, unable through pride or public opinion, being dragged kicking into a war they don’t want.

For what remains true is that neither side is choosing war.
  • Bill Richardson Travels to Pyongyang  The New York Times' Sharon LaFraniere and Mark McDonald report that "Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico met for more than an hour on Friday morning with North Korea's vice minister for American affairs, the first stop on a five-day private visit he said was aimed at conveying concerns about North Korean provocations and reducing tensions on the peninsula." They note Richardson is "a former United States ambassador to the United Nations who has occasionally traveled to North Korea on unofficial visits." However, "while the latest trip was approved by the State Department, he was not traveling as an official envoy."
Beyond being alarming, Maxwell argues that we need better and broader planning for these collapse scenarios. That seems wise and all (planning is good), but part of the difficulty is that the political management of the situation would get much, much worse if there were high profile planning sessions about DPRK collapse. What’s more, the government of China seems unlikely to be interested in participating in any such planning, and yet some kind of political coordination with Beijing is crucial.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.