The Guns of December

It's about time South Korea started shooting back.

It is hard to recall a better example of successful deterrence than what failed to happen on Monday, Dec. 20, on the Korean peninsula. That was the planned date of a South Korean artillery drill on Yeonpyeong Island, just seven and half miles from the North Korean mainland, but 50 miles from Incheon, the nearest South Korean port. Determined to intimidate Seoul into calling off the artillery exercise -- 94 minutes of live fire -- Pyongyang issued a veritable cascade of threats.

First, the North Korean Foreign Ministry officially declared that because the South was so reckless, the matter would be left entirely in the hands of the military command, which had been given full freedom of action. Ratcheting it up from there, the North Korean military spokesman declared that if the South fired its guns at all, their reaction would be: fierce, devastating, drastic, and/or catastrophic, depending on the translation. But the highest note in the crescendo came from Sin Son-ho, the dapper North Korean ambassador to the United Nations, who solemnly warned that if war broke out, it would not be confined to the Korean peninsula and might easily spread worldwide.

In the event, the South Koreans fired some 1,500 howitzer shells, and North Korea fired nothing back, except for the lame complaint of their military spokesman: "The South's vile military provocations do not deserve even a passing notice."

Ominous is the right tone in the threatening business, not wild exaggeration, as we all learned in my elementary school in Palermo, Sicily, from the luckier kids whose fathers were ranking Mafiosi. Yet despite its overheated language, North Korea had credibility on its side: Just a month earlier, on Nov. 23, it did react to a Southern live-fire drill on Yeonpyeong Island with an artillery barrage that wrecked dozens of houses, damaged and set afire military base buildings, wounded 18 civilians, and killed four, including two South Korean marines. It also frightened the population at large, which knows full well that the North has tens of thousands of guns, howitzers, mortars, rockets, and missiles that could quickly devastate the capital city of Seoul, whose northern edges are less than 25 miles from the border.

In very different ways, that bloody episode in November marked a low point: not only for North Korea, whose aggression was entirely blatant, but also for South Korea, whose deterrence has plainly failed; for the U.N. Security Council, which was reduced to impotence by China's refusal to condemn North Korea; and for various peace-mongering interlopers, who foolishly echoed the Security Council's dispiriting call for "restraint" from both sides.

Even amid that inane company, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter stood out: His own spectacularly ill-judged response was to call for bilateral U.S.-North Korean talks. Nothing sounds more logical -- after all, only madmen talk to themselves as opposed to an interlocutor, and it is with enemies that one must talk, even more so than with friends.

But in that particular case, "bilateral" would have meant to talk about the Korean peninsula without the government of South Korea at the table -- giving the greatest possible political victory to Pyongyang by confirming in spades its central claim that it is the only true Korean government, while South Korea is a mere American puppet. Without seemingly understanding what he was saying, Carter explained the need for bilateral talks by noting that "Leaders in Pyongyang consider South Korea's armed forces to be controlled from Washington." Hence the very fact of negotiating at all would have been amply destructive, simultaneously delegitimizing South Korea's democratic government and anointing the bizarrely monstrous Kim dynasty as Korea's sole legitimate rulers.

Only a month later, and just a day before the momentous Dec. 20 non-event, there was more ill-conceived and damaging interloping in conjunction with the visit to North Korea of Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico. As a seasoned former envoy who had dealt with the regime before, Richardson made all the right moves, said nothing damaging, and emerged with the worthwhile North Korean promise to allow the entry of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear inspectors once again. But accompanying Richardson was the supposed North Korea expert Tony Namkung (he has claimed he has been there 30 times -- always a bad sign) who played the "useful idiot" role to perfection, with the added resonance of speaking from Pyongyang itself. Regarding the imminent Yeonpyeong live-fire drill, his words only added credibility to Northern threats, while seeking to undermine Southern resolve: "There is no doubt in my mind that there will be a [North Korean armed] response," said Namkung. "The only issue is whether they will once again target civilians [as well].… the [North Korean] military has said that there can be no forgiveness, period."

Fortunately, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his ministers and military advisors knew better than to listen to the U.N. Security Council, Jimmy Carter, the likes of Namkung, or indeed North Korean threats. They had finally realized that when it came to deterrence, they had a lot of catching up to do.

Seoul had done nothing whatsoever to punish the North for the Nov. 23 Yeonpyeong bombardment -- leading many in the South to wonder why so much money had to be spent on the latest and best weapons for the South Korean armed forces if they were never to be used. By then many realized that if the South had acted more vigorously beforehand, against an even deadlier attack -- the March 26 sinking of the South Korean navy corvette Cheonan that left 46 sailors dead -- it might have prevented the November barrage.

After a multinational investigation quickly uncovered that the Cheonan was sunk by a torpedo launched by a North Korean mini-submarine, the Security Council duly condemned the attack but -- at Chinese insistence -- failed to identify the attacker. South Korea protested, complained, and did nothing of substance to punish North Korea. As Dec. 20 approached, Lee -- who had been elected as a hard-liner moreover -- along with his ministers and military chiefs were clearly failing in their very first duty: to safeguard the lives of their fellow citizens by deterring North Korean attacks.

Of course, the United States remains the guarantor of ultimate security with its armed forces in place, which include a total of some 28,500 service personnel mostly in the Army's 2nd Division and two Air Force fighter wings -- with reinforcements from Japan if needed. But their task can only be to deter an actual war, not to deal with mere hit-and-run incidents that are over in minutes or hours, nor to retaliate against North Korea for them. It is the South Koreans who are responsible for the day-to-day security of their country. And it was precisely this responsibility that South Korean leaders and military chiefs evaded in March and again in November: partly no doubt because they were caught by surprise; partly because even a right-leaning government cannot ignore the influence of the remarkably anti-American pacifist left on public opinion (American G.I. trysts with their grandmothers are still bitterly resented); partly because South Korean big business is more worried by the consequences of action than inaction; and finally, because the government in Seoul still wanted to believe that China would solve the problem for them.

It is only now that it has become totally clear that China positively wants a somewhat aggressive North Korea, whose outrages would force the South to come to Beijing on bended knee to plead for its safety, gradually accepting suzerainty in exchange. The Chinese talk about the dangers of an all-out war but evidently they do not believe it can happen, hence their unwillingness to really pressure North Korea as they easily could.

By Dec. 20, however, all illusions spent, and with the firm support of an unflinching Obama administration, the South Koreans finally did the right thing. And they did it well: Along with realistic civil-defense plans, the evacuation of the most exposed civilians, and preparations for vigorous counterbattery fire to hit Northern guns if they shelled Yeonpyeong again, the South let it be known that if the North Koreans opened fire anywhere else, in places where it lacked enough artillery to respond in kind, it would resort to airstrikes.

In the days leading up to the drill, many South Koreans were alarmed; others understood the risks but were nevertheless satisfied that their government was finally ready to act purposefully to protect them from the North's aggressions. But by 2:30 p.m. on Dec. 20 it was all over. The South Koreans had fired their 1,500 shells, the North Koreans had done nothing for all their wild threats, and news of their renewed acceptance of IAEA nuclear inspectors soon followed.

With North Korea's dynastic dictatorship showing no signs of improvement and with its uniquely militarized and compulsively aggressive power structure, South Korea had better institutionalize the lesson of the Dec. 20 episode, if it is to prevent further deadly attacks on its citizens. For it, as for any state facing a permanent conflict with violent enemies, deterrence by whatever means -- not necessarily just military -- is the strategic equivalent of money in running a business: nothing can be done without it.

Words alone are not enough to deter. There has to be the will to act and "escalation dominance" if action becomes necessary. If there is going to be any tit for tat, the South has to ensure that its tit would inflict more damage than the North's tat. With the North having invested over the decades in tens of thousands of artillery tubes as well as rockets and short-range missiles deployed all along the front line -- from sea to sea, right across the peninsula -- the South cannot hope to have more than very localized escalation dominance with guns alone.

Hence if the fighting is restricted to artillery, the North can always out-barrage the South and dominate the outcome, as it did on Yeonpyeong Island in November. Only air power can swiftly out-concentrate the North's artillery. To be sure, South Korea's fighter-bombers could be especially effective if they were to surprise Northern forces out in the open, unprepared for air attacks. But if the South just started to bomb targets of opportunity in response to artillery fire, this might start an entire war. Hence, just as it did before Dec. 20, the South must renounce secrecy and surprise to publicly announce that it would respond to artillery attacks with airstrikes against the offending batteries, if its own guns were not up to the job. That way, a calculated step for local escalation dominance could not be confused with an uncontrolled escalation to general war. It's a delicate balancing act, but such are the tensions of life on the Korean peninsula these days.

One day, no doubt the North Korean regime will pass into history. But until then, the South Koreans must finally disenthrall themselves from the illusion that other countries will ensure their day-to-day security from attack -- it will not be done by the United States, let alone the United Nations, and certainly not by China.

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Wooing the Gods of the Peace Process

Obama is poised to become increasingly entangled in the Arab-Israeli conflict during the next year. Here's how he can avoid his predecessors' mistakes.

If the peace process gods have a sense of humor (and history), sometime around next summer -- the 11th anniversary of Bill Clinton's failed Camp David summit -- another Democratic president's peace initiative will be tested.

Right now, the arc of President Barack Obama's peace process efforts (and the other Clinton's, too) is leading inexorably to American "bridging" proposals -- ideas on the core issues meant to literally bridge the gaps between Israeli and Palestinian positions -- if not a U.S. plan to reach a framework accord on all the big issues, which would constitute an extraordinary breakthrough. Currently, neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are able to bridge the gaps on Jerusalem, borders, security, and the fate of Palestinian refugees. But with the Obama administration's inability to resist engaging, the president might end up in another make or break summit.

But Obama shouldn't rush toward another disaster so quickly. A faltering, struggling peace process with some hope is far better than a failed one that leaves everyone hopeless -- and without a fallback option. When the time comes for big American moves (and, sadly, it will come given the Israeli and Palestinian lack of ownership over their own process), Obama should pay careful attention to the lessons and circumstances of the last big American effort to resolve the core issues.

Much has changed in the past decade since Clinton asked Yasir Arafat and Ehud Barak to come to only the second presidential summit at Camp David in 50 years of American involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some of the changes have inspired observers to believe the time is right for a big American move: both Abbas and Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, unlike Arafat, are well-intentioned, practical men with no history of involvement in terrorism and violence; Palestinian security performance is much improved; and the Arabs have put their own 2002 peace initiative on the table. Much good work has indeed been done on the core issues since Camp David in 2000. If the Untied Statesdoesn't act on this progress soon, say some analysts, there will be no two-state solution to negotiate. And those are the optimists talking.

But there's plenty of bad news, too. The Palestinian national movement faces its deepest crisis since its inception. It has become a kind of Noah's ark with two of everything: two security services; two different leaderships (Hamas and Abbas's Fatah) controlling two separated populations; two different sets of patrons and funding streams; and, above all, two different visions of Palestine's future. Netanyahu has the power to lead Israel into a deal, but maybe not the incentive; Abbas has the incentive, but not the power. And Iran and those it supports -- Hamas and Hezbollah -- have the capacity to weaken and undermine the efforts of would-be peacemakers.

As Obama weighs his peace process strategy in the new year, he will be told four things by those who are pushing him to be bold and decisive. First, the parties were "this close" to an accord at the last Camp David, they will say, thumb and first finger almost touching. Second, that a tremendous amount of work has been done in the past 10 years by Israelis and Palestinians on the core issues which have brought the parties closer than they've ever been. Third, that everyone knows the broad outlines of an agreement. And, fourth, that trying and failing is better than not having tried at all.

Myth merges uneasily with fact here, and bad analysis and logical lapses seem to rule the day. Let's address these four points, one at a time. First, on no issue were the two sides "this close" or even nearly so at Camp David in 2000. Second, yes, a great deal of fine work has been done on the core issues -- but by negotiators who risked very little either because they knew the hour was late and there was no real chance of success, or because they were unempowered to negotiate. Third, the fact that we have a better idea of what a solution might be in no way makes it easier to get there. And, fourth, as for the old college try, that's no substitute for the foreign policy of the world's greatest power. Failure costs, and sometimes, it makes matters worse.

As Obama weighs his approach to Arab-Israeli negotiations in the new year, he should certainly know that on some issues -- territory and security -- the two sides have moved closer, at least on paper. No doubt he is aware that, even on issues such as Jerusalem, the Israeli and Palestinian publics may be more conditioned to accepting an agreement. How any of this would actually play out in the cruel and unforgiving world of Israeli and Palestinian politics -- where Abbas and Netanyahu actually have to make decisions -- is another matter. Presumably, the goal of the next several months will be to have the quiet diplomacy of envoy George Mitchell and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton test out all this.

But far more important to Obama's calculations should be the two unasked questions of Camp David: questions that Bill Clinton and those who advised him (including myself), never asked critically or comprehensively enough. This is particularly important for Obama who, much like Bill Clinton, believes that through the force of his personality, he can act as a transformative agent in international politics.

First, are the two leaders willing, able, and ready to make the big decisions on the big territorial issues and on the identity issues of Jerusalem and refugees? And, second, is Obama himself willing, able, and ready to do what's necessary to be tough, reassuring, and fair -- using ample amounts of honey and vinegar to try to make the deal?

If the answer to the first question is yes, Obama's in business. If both are yes, he might even -- with the help of the peace process gods -- get an agreement. But he must ask these questions before he commits because, if he doesn't, he will surely fail. And in failing he will be hanging a "closed for the season" sign on American efforts in Arab-Israeli peacemaking. And far from being the architect of a negotiated two-state solution, Obama will end up being the American president whose administration presided over its demise.

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