As joint military exercises between the United States and South Korea continue until the end of August and North Korea has declared willingness to retaliate if provoked, it is worth remembering that stability in the region still technically at war is based solely on madness.
Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) is the theory that the Soviet Union and the United States operated under during the height of the Cold War beginning in the 1960’s. The idea was based on the fact that both sides had the ability to wipe out the other, but neither had sufficient capability to destroy their foe’s devestating retaliatory capability. As such, either side would be committing suicide by launching a nuclear strike, so they never did. The principle is still applied today to justify the maintenance of massive stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
Proponents of the theory suggest the fact conflict never occured proves the validity of MAD. But there have been some close calls along the way, suggesting good fortune played as much a role in preventing the destruction of humankind.
The Korean Peninsula operates under its own version of MAD. South Korea has, as Foreign Policy in Focus co-director John Feffer put it in an interview, a military so superior to the North that a conventional war would be “worse than America against Iraq in 2003,” in terms of lopsidedness. South Korea is further backed (unnecessarily) by America’s nuclear umbrella, which threatens to rain devestation on Pyongyang at the push of a button.
For their part, Pyongyang has a nuclear and long-range missile capacity of dubious quality. Experts still debate the viability of their nuclear program, specifically their ability to deliver a nuclear weapon to any target reliably. Their military has been in decline for decades, and is largely for show. Though they could never win a conventional war with South Korea they do, however, have enough short range missile capability to damage Seoul and the surrounding area (accounting for over 23 million people — nearly half the country’s population) significantly if necessary. This would seriously damage the South Korean economy. The collapse of the regime could also lead to an even more difficult situation for the South to deal with, for it is unknown what would emerge from the inevitable power vacuum.
In short, the two states exist under the precarious assumption that neither side can afford war so it wont happen.
Yet, dangerously, American policy toward North Korea has been essentially to completely ignore or act belligerently toward the increasingly desperate state since the inception of George W. Bush in 2000. South Korea, after a decade of thawed relations (limited by America’s unwilligness to play along diplomatically) has turned to a combination of ignorance and provocation since President Lee Myung-bak came to power in 2008.
Provocation was most notable after anti-submarine vessel the Cheonan sank in 2010. The South Korean government blamed North Korea without any evidence, suggesting a scientifically impossible scenario for the suppossed attack.
In the climate of tension thereafter America and South Korea launched training missions near disputed waters in the Yellow Sea. South Korean marines then fired live rounds into those disputed waters (the border of which was established arbitrarily by the United Nations Command after the armistace agreement following the Korean War). North Korea threatened retaliation, and when the South refused to cease firing, eventually carried out this threat by shelling Yeonpyeong Island, in the disputed region, killing four South Koreans.
The most recent military training missions between the U.S. and South Korea, annual exercises dubbed Ulchi Freedom Guardian, recall this incident. While South Korea seems to operate under the assumption that the North is unwilling to escaltate tensions to full war, it is worth noting that the principle of MAD itself, though reasonable on its face, could be rendered irrelevant with one false alarm or if one side feels it has been backed into a wall. It is further worth questioning the necessity of using North Korea’s flag as a target in such military operations — this kind of action only begs retalition.
Tension has a certain momentum. If the North Korean government is pushed too far, there may come a time in the future when those who wield power decide retaliation is the only option. After such retalition, if hardliners in South Korea push sufficiently for further escalation (as they tried to do after Yeonpyeong Island), the game will be on once more in Korea.
While the Korean peninsula has acheived stability relative to its former state of total war in the early 1950’s due to its own form of MAD, it would be wise for both American and South Korean policy makers not to press the principle too far, lest they discover that rationale alone is not enough to prevent insanity.
Rather than provoking North Korea, South Korea and the U.S. would be best served engaging the state diplomatically (an option welcomed by North Korea since at least the end of the Cold War). That is, unless they want regime change, or to simply isolate the country and use its existance as a thinly vieled excuse for regional militarisation truly directed at China. That, of course, would be another form of madness entirely.