Meanwhile, in Korea…

As best I can tell the actually important news story of the day concerns the continued provocations of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. I suppose it’s actually good that cable news doesn’t seem very interested in this story, since coverage would likely be hysterical and counterproductive. Still it matters. And Dan Nexon has some smart things to say about it:

What makes this interesting (and dangerous), is that ROK forces–even without U.S. help–are more than a match for anything that the North Koreans can field. This means that the South Korean leadership has any number of plausible military options; if the South Koreans begin to significantly alter their assessment of current trends, these military options will likely appear increasingly attractive.

Still, none of this suggests an alteration in the basic factors that restrain Seoul:

– Before they collapse, North Korean forces will kill a lot of South Koreans and do a lot of damage to South Korea’s economy;

– The United States has no appetite for taking part in an additional large-scale military conflict;

– Uncertainty surrounding Beijing’s likely actions in the event of a conflict; and

– The significant challenges that would come from assuming control of North Korean territory if the conflict leads to ROK victory in a full-blown war.

These four factors–two of which aren’t particularly manipulable–make significant escalation unlikely. But with the developments of the last two days, I’m less sanguine than I was even after the sinking of the Cheonan–especially about the long-term prospects for a peaceful Korean peninsula.

To me the issue for American policymakers is that it’s really not clear why our troops need to be in the middle of this mess. We have no way of mitigating 1 and 3, and no intention I can see of mitigating 4, so at this point our efforts to help South Korea create problems for the United States without offering any clear benefits to our client. Of course we should avoid disengaging in a way that looks like we’re somehow selling the ROK out in the face of DPRK aggression, but we ought to be looking to involve ourselves less and less in this.