While much of the commentary on the most recent round of tensions on the Korean Peninsula seems concerned with why it might escalate to war, I think it’s equally useful at this point to give an accounting of the reasons why it probably won’t. (And, thankfully, there are a few.)
You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t acknowledge that domestic politics in North Korea, what with an impending leadership transition and worsening food shortages, probably has a lot to do with the decision to lob around 180 shells onto a small Yellow Sea island west of the peninsula. Perhaps the Kims feel the need to look “tough” and “in control” in anticipation of the accession of a new, untested leader to the throne of the DPRK. Granting that, though, below the jump are a few reasons why a general war probably won’t be in the offing. (Probably.)
First, let’s think about North Korean aims. No one is under any illusions about the likely outcome of a conflict: untold devastation but, ultimately, a military defeat for the North and the likely end of the Kims’ reign. What the North probably wants is a continuation of the status quo, that is the Kims remaining in power, albeit with their domestic grip tightened by further concessions on food and fuel from the outside. And let’s be honest: everyone else prefers the status quo to war as well, from the Chinese (who don’t want a refugee problem followed by a united democratic Korea next door), to the South (who wouldn’t want to take on the economic burden of rebuilding the already shattered North Korean domestic economy), to the United Sates (who shares the South’s concerns and wouldn’t want to incur the costs of yet another war on our plate at the present time). And let’s not forget: expectations of victory aren’t enough to make war “in your interest,” because the costs associated with it ensure that you’d be better off getting a deal that reflects your chances of victory less those costs.
But let’s get back to the topic at hand. What the North most wants here, I think, is more concessions short war (moving the status quo closer to their ideal through some limited risks and brinkmanship), but to do so they’ve got to demonstrate resolve, or the willingness to run a bigger risk of escalation to war than everyone else. And, frankly, they may be well on their way to getting what they want, because they know that no one else wants war…and they can take advantage of that in order to win concessions by being just a little more belligerent than everyone else. Frankly, the survival of the Kim regime is important only to the Kims, and no one else; they care about these issues a lot more than anyone else, and they’ll (unsurprisingly) run bigger risks than anyone else to achieve a favorable resolution. But, again, choosing just the right level of escalation may be difficult, and running a risk of war means that, however small, there is a positive chance it could happen…but the level of risk will be chosen by the North and, as things progress, by the South, the US, and China…
Second, we’ve got to deal with the possibility that escalation gets out of hand through the process of saber-rattling (in fact, there must be some kind of risk here, else saber-rattling serves no real purpose). This, I think, is where the great powers come in. Neither China nor the US wants to see things go too far, and the benchmark here is the way the US and the Soviets handled conflicts between their respective friends during the Cold War, discouraging escalation and threatening their own actions, even against their own friends, to make sure that some threshold isn’t reached. Long story short, we can expect that both the US and China, regardless of what they’re saying now, will be strongly discouraging escalation in the short term. Yes, there’s some Sunday morning talk-show consternation that China isn’t publicly reining in the North just yet, but give it time.
So, sure, the North has upped the ante, directly targeting civilians in an overt military strike in a way they haven’t since 1953 (we’ll leave the kidnappings out of this for now, I suppose), but this is also the most tenuous (and only the second) leadership transition they’ve ever experienced, so perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. My guess is that we can count on the US and China to tamp down on too much further escalation, but that doesn’t in any way rule out continued threats, provocations, and confrontations short of war. In fact, these will likely stay with us for a while (arguably, they’ve been here since the suspension of the six-party talks and the sinking of the Cheonan), especially as the political transition approaches.
If we’re to truly see a full-scale war, though, it’ll likely be the result of some kind of internal power struggle that pits the Kims against the military inside the DPRK, at which point the inability of one side to guarantee the safety of the other might very well trump all these other international reasons not to expect war…how’s that for academic equivocation?