South Koreans expect that this time their government will retaliate, and it seems that military leaders -- especially after Lee's recent shakeup of the top ranks -- share this mood. It's an understandable reaction, no doubt. But it is also dangerous and counterproductive.
To start with, even if a massive South Korean counterstrike were successful, it would exercise no impact on Pyongyang's political behavior. For instance, with its impressive technological superiority, the South Korean military could probably sink half the North Korean navy in about an hour. In most places, that sort of defeat would have serious political consequences -- but not in North Korea.
The lives of the common soldiers and sailors are of no political significance there. The tiny North Korean elite has demonstrated that it is ready to sacrifice as many of the common people as necessary to stay in control (during the famine of the late 1990s, as many as 1 million people perished, with no discernable political repercussions for the government). The death of a few hundred soldiers will be seen as a sorry but fully acceptable price -- and will not even deter Pyongyang from planning a new round of provocations.
Some argue that such a military disaster would damage the regime, which has staked its reputation on Kim Jong Il's "military first" doctrine. But Kim's regime controls the media so completely that even the most humiliating defeat would be presented as a great victory, a spectacular triumph of North Korean arms. Only a handful of generals will know the truth, and these generals understand that they would have no future without the current regime, so they are unlikely to protest.
So, nothing can be gained from a massive retaliatory strike. But much can be lost. It may be true that neither side wants war, but there is a danger that a South Korean counterstrike would be seen as excessive in Pyongyang. The North may choose to retaliate, perhaps even targeting Seoul this time -- and some 300 long-range guns, located near the capital, can kill thousands in a couple of hours. One cannot be sure whether such an exchange could be stopped in time, and chances for a showdown to escalate into a full-blown war are real, if relatively small. Needless to say, a 21st century war on the Korean peninsula would have disastrous consequences, not only for Korea, but for a world economy that is still emerging from recession.
Yes, it's far more likely the entire affair will be limited to a tit-for-tat exchange of strikes. Yet even that would help Pyongyang achieve its major goal. One can easily imagine how, even in the event of a limited engagement, major newspapers worldwide will run headlines screaming "War in Korea!" That will scare investors and deliver a heavy blow to the southern economy -- exactly what Pyongyang hopes to achieve.
Nor should we be misled by the current bellicosity of the Seoul street. If events take such a turn, the very same people who now loudly demand retaliation will start blaming the government for their economic woes and sense of physical insecurity. Whether Lee and his team will survive this challenge is an open but, frankly, not really important question. What is important is that even a carefully circumscribed crisis will show Pyongyang that its blackmail strategy works.
Does this mean that South Korea should just turn the other cheek? Of course, not, but the possible retaliation should be immediate and small in scale (frankly, of largely symbolic nature). For decades, South Koreans were capable of reacting to truly outrageous acts with remarkable restraint, and this is one of the reasons they now live in a society whose affluence, freedom, and sophistication is the envy of Asia. If they abandon this wise tradition in the coming months, they will pay a heavy price -- as will we all.