A Second Korean War? Doubtful

A Second Korean War? Doubtful

On Tuesday, North Korea fired over a hundred artillery rounds onto the border island of Yeonpyeong, destroying dwellings and killing four South Koreans. The South responded by firing about eighty rounds of their own across the border...

Despite the North Korea’s overt aggression, it is unlikely the two Koreas will be going to war. Such eruptions have become almost expected from the North; as recently as March, forty-six South Korean sailors from the corvette Cheonan were killed by what was apparently a Northern torpedo. This far more significant loss of life was met by tough talk and economic sanctions.

If the North had intended to use the Yeonpyeong incident as a catalyst for a glorious “War of Reunification,” the peninsula would already be engulfed in combat. Rather, this episode is more likely a response to international outcry over the North’s recent decision to continue enriching weapons-grade uranium at their Yongbyon facility. Upcoming South Korean-U.S. wargames, which begin Sunday, are another potential impetus.

When faced with outside pressure on sensitive issues such as their nuclear program, North Korea has had a history of lashing out, revealing their most immediate concern: the protection of the Kim dynasty’s hereditary power. Kim Jong-Il is averse to any external influences that could weaken his grip on society, and thus cultivates the impression of constantly being on the verge of war to keep their enemies at bay. The Dear Leader has even been known to retract various half-baked market reforms for fear of a Glasnost-style opening of society. There are exceptions to this trend; Sean Douglass wrote last week
on the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which has seen some success. However, whatever progress is made in North-South relations is invariably undone by setbacks such as Tuesday’s incident.

If the North does intend to go back to war, it is in no position to launch or sustain such a conflict; its economy collapsed last year after a disastrous attempt to revalue its currency, and the state lacks the basic ability to provide for its citizens. The state healthcare system is in a shambles, as doctors lack basic instruments and medicines and are usually compensated for their services via informal barter systems. Chronic food shortages have persisted since the devastating famines of the 1990s. Even the military, the best-fed social class, is subject to stringent food rationing.

Perhaps South Korea will eventually be pushed over the edge by an even more flagrant affront by the North. But for the time being, it is more probable that we will see North Korea continue to wallow in its self-imposed isolation.