Friday, December 17, 2010

A Very Korean Weekend: Confrontation or Breakthrough

The Korean crisis is turning into a case study on escalation control. With the arrival of Bill Richardson to North Korea on Thursday, North Korea decided on Friday to wave their deterrent, again, in our direction.

North Korea warned Friday that another war with South Korea would involve nuclear arms and spread beyond the peninsula, upping the ante as a prominent U.S. politician and a top U.S. nuclear envoy each visited Pyongyang and Seoul to defuse tension.

Uriminzokkiri, the communist state's official Web site, also said in a commentary that war on the Korean Peninsula is only a matter of time, stoking already high tensions after the North shelled a western South Korean island on Nov. 23 and killed four people.

"If war breaks out, it will lead to nuclear warfare and not be limited to the Korean Peninsula," it said.
If you are one of those people who think this is just more North Korean rhetoric, and do not see military confrontation as a possibility here, perhaps if I raise you a Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff you might reconsider the very real possibility that war might come to the Korean Peninsula as soon as this weekend.
The U.S. military is concerned that South Korea's live-fire artillery exercises planned for coming days could spark an uncontrollable clash with the North, but the State Department said the exercises are not meant to be threatening or provocative.

"What we worry about, obviously, is if that is misunderstood or if it's taken advantage of as an opportunity," Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Thursday at the Pentagon. "If North Korea were to react to that in a negative way and fire back at those firing positions on the islands, that would start potentially a chain reaction of firing and counter-firing."
The escalation control comes, in part, from diplomats:
"South Korea is entitled to take appropriate steps in its self-defense, making sure that its military is prepared in the event of further provocations is a perfectly legitimate step for South Korea to take," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said at his midday briefing Thursday. "North Korea should not see these South Korean actions as a provocation."
But the Generals are involved in the escalation control process:
"What you don't want to have happen out of that is ... for us to lose control of the escalation. That's the concern," Cartwright said about the military exercises.
There is a pattern of cop/bad cop when you mix and match the comments from State and Defense:
"These are routine exercises. There's nothing, you know, provocative or unusual or threatening about these exercises," Crowley said. "There's no need for it to increase tensions in the area. This is a pre-announced live fire exercise. The North Koreans clearly should know what is going to happen. It is not directed at North Korea."
What concerns me about General Cartwrights comments is that they do not all appear to be pointed in the direction of North Korea, indeed one could infer that he is speaking through the media to South Korea as well. There were news reports that North Korea warned South Korea not to conduct the exercises on Yeonpyeong Island prior to the first incident. Has there been a warning this time? I only ask because we are reacting to news of the new exercise as if North Korea told us - 'better not!'

How do we then put the comments by Vice Adm. Al Myers to the crew of the USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) into context with all that is going on. The aircraft carrier is in the final stages before heading off to the western Pacific. I personally find these comments quite remarkable, but primarily because Navy News Service actually printed it.
Myers also encouraged the strike group Sailors to handle the gravity of their forthcoming mission.

"For the folks who are on their first deployment, they're going to write history. Vinson is going to be in the news," Myers said. "It's important to understand the Navy does two fundamental things - one is we influence foreign countries, build and disrupt coalitions, and we maintain sea lanes of commerce. You're going to influence a few foreign countries. By being present there, you're going to be protecting our lanes of commerce. You can't do that virtually, you have to be there, you have to be forward deployed. You prove every day what a strong team can do."
Looking for a way to pull all of this together? The commentary at Nightwatch over the last two days has been very good. Read this report first, then this one, before reading on...

If you follow the pattern you see two tracks possible, confrontation and diplomatic breakthrough. The State Department deserves a ton of credit for being very agile and responsive in keeping the pressure on both North Korea and China. It is worth noting that Russia still lingers as a Plan B over the horizon as a SK-US-Japan diplomatic option should things turn south. For their part, China is being systematically discredited as the responsible regional leader to virtually every observer, and younger leaders who are more familiar with how international rule sets work for security have demonstrated signs of awareness towards this important aspect of events. That is good news in the long term, but does nothing for the current situation.

The chess match being orchestrated by the State Department is designed around a theory of escalation control for nuclear warfare that I had believed disappeared after the cold war. The US military has masterfully played their support role for the region while signaling preparation for military action should a confrontation occur. The statements of US Generals and Admirals act as pressure points to maintain pressure on the region, and everything has been building towards the South Korean exercise this weekend. As it has been since the original combat action, what happens next will be determined exclusively by the two Koreas, with both the US and China playing every card possible to insure a diplomatic avenue exists should confrontation not be on the agenda.

As a final note:
Date .......attack subs deployed | attack subs underway
Nov30 .............. 37% ................ 46%
Dec07 .............. 41% ................ 63%
Dec17 ...............43% ................ 67%
A full 2/3 of the United States Navy attack submarine force is at sea today, and 4 attack submarines have deployed over the last 10 days. I'm sure it is a Christmas coincidence.

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