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February 07, 2003

The Goad

In the buildup to World War One, the major countries initially involved, Russia, France, Austria and Germany, participated in a tit for tat escalation of preparations for war until war itself became impossible to avoid. Each country perceived moves on the other side as an escalation of the situation, and responded with an countermove of its own, ratcheting up the pressure and producing an identical paranoid reaction in the opposite camp. After Russia declared a general mobilization, Austria, France, and Germany issued mobilization orders of their own, and war started on August 1st, 1914.

Had any country backed off during the rush to mobilization, the pressure might have eased enough for diplomacy to bring an end to the crisis. The problem with backing off was that more troops could be moved farther and faster than ever before by one's enemies, thanks to Europe's extensive railroad system. There was a very real fear that if national mobilization was delayed, then an opposing army would be across the border before a effective force could be built up to oppose the invasion.

Essentially, slowing down mobilization would have given the other side an advantage in the event of a war, in that once mobilization was complete an army could reach the front far faster than in the past. In battle, the army that brings the largest amount of force to bear the quickest has a decided advantage over the enemy, one that any military commander would be understandably loath to grant to an enemy counterpart. There were other causes of World War One, other reasons why hostilities might have broken out, but the months just before the war were characterized by behaviors on the part of the Axis and Allies that were intended to keep the other side from having an edge in case war broke out, behaviors that led ineluctably to war breaking out.

Now, taking that behavior as a template, does anything about this series of headlines strike you as familiar?

Satellites Said to See Activity at North Korean Nuclear Site
U.S. Bombers on Alert to Deploy as Warning to North Koreans
N.Korea Warns Could Strike U.S. First - London Daily
U.S. Ready for 'Any Contingencies' with North Korea
North Korea Restarts Plant With Ability to Fuel Arms

It's not even been four months since news of the continuing North Korean broke, yet the situation has already progressed to the point where the news stories discuss military movements rather than diplomatic overtures, and unless something happens to break the cycle, war on the Korean peninsula is probably inevitable. North Korea can't back down, and the United States won't.

North Korea can't back down, because stepping back from the brink without concessions from the United States in the form of a renewed supply of heavy oil is to surrender without a fight. The ability of the North Korean military to project force externally and, more importantly, to prop up the Kim Jong IL regime internally, depends on oil. Without it tanks grind to a halt, ships cannot put to sea and the trucks that supply food to the North Korean forces sit idle. Hungry soldiers are not trustworthy soldiers, they do things like revolt and overthrow governments. In a very real sense, if Kim Jong IL runs out of oil, he's a dead man, and Kim Jong IL is rapidly running out of oil.

The United States won't back down for a number of reasons, not the least of which is when George Bush labeled North Korea as part of an "Axis of Evil" and when Donald Rumsfeld later called it a "terrorist regime", they greatly restricted any course of action they could later take. One doesn't reverse course after using this type of language without suffering for it at the polls later on. Another reason is that North Korea is not yet a strategic threat to the U.S., despite its possession of a few nuclear weapons. Kim IL can talk the talk, but he can't walk the walk when it comes to directly hurting the U.S., not until he develops a better missle. The brunt of any war on the Korean peninsula in the near future will be born by Japan and South Korea. In the world of realpolitik, that may be horrible, but it's also acceptable.

The lack of a North Korean strategic threat is only temporary. Given time, North Korea will produce not only more nuclear weapons, but the ability to deliver them to any part of the United States. The sale of fissionable material or a complete nuke to various terrorist groups is also likely. Delivering oil to North Korea only speeds up this process, as Kim has already demonstrated that treaties and diplomacy are not enough to cause North Korea to cease its nuclear weapons program. If they were, then North Korea would have no nuclear weapons, and the current crisis would have never come about.

The Unites States won't back down, because is in the long term interest of the United States to go to war with North Korea sooner rather than later. The conundrum the Bush administration faces is how to bring about such a war without appearing to be the aggressor, but so far that problem has been finessed rather nicely. The combination of diplomatic foot-dragging and heavily publicized military moves in the Pacific theatre are pushing an increasingly desperate North Korea to the brink of war.

Which brings us back to the advantage given to an army that can bring the largest amount of force to bear the quickest. 80% of the million man North Korean army is just across the DMZ from South Korea. They are already at the front, along with 11,000 artillery pieces, and facing a numerically far smaller force. Force projection at the very beginning of a Korean war is the only variable that favors North Korea, and is the linchpin of the entire North Korean strategy,

The United States possess a technological edge, in terms of force transport. Once the U.S. decides to start moving forces in a position to support the South Koreans in case of war, the North Korean advantage starts to degrade, rapidly.

Germany, France, Russia and Austria, knowing that the enemy had started the process of bringing its forces to bear, rushed to war not in an attempt to grab that advantage for themselves, but to prevent the enemy from having it. There's nothing to indicate North Korea will not do the same. The days immediately after we announce the deployment of a carrier group to the region are going to be very dangerous ones indeed.

Posted by Bigwig at February 7, 2003 12:36 AM | TrackBack
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