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A lesson from South Korea

Written By: - Date published: 9:00 am, May 30th, 2017 - 16 comments
Categories: International, war - Tags: ,

Another month, another U.S.-Korean film co-production. Starring Liam Neeson as General Macarthur, it’s the Battle for Incheon: Operation Chromite.

Gentlemen, start chewing your cigars.

But perhaps it’s time we started looking again at how bad the situation is: how close to war they are getting. This is an exceedingly dangerous year.
So far, Trump is very clear not to alienate Seoul, Tokyo or Beijing, preferring instead to use the bully pulpit of calculated ambiguity and rhetorical provocation than any serious commitment to full blown military action. In a taped interview in late April on CBS, President Trump was resolutely not talking about the possibility of military action, saying: “It is a chess game. I just don’t want people to know what my thinking is.”

So far, the leadership of North Korea are also bullying from the pulpit, but they are far less ambiguous. They are pretty consistent in their messaging that they view the U.S. military presence in their vicinity as a threat, which they want to completely destroy.

They are also clear about what they want to hit on the U.S. mainland.

So far, seems pretty much the same as the last five years or so. Well, not really. The North Korean missiles are getting better, going further, the tests happening more often.

But you may wonder: what is of risk to little old us at the bottom of the world? Answer: firstly, Korea is the 6th largest export destination for what we make and sell. That’s over $2 billion our exporters get, and it’s growing. And in imports, it’s where my Galaxy 8 comes from. More seriously, a big reason is that we would likely be drawn into it just as we were last time. And another is: nuclear war.

New Zealand governments tend to back military interventions only when they have a U.N. Security Council mandate. But when we back them, we usually send some of our troops to be in harms’ way. My uncle fought in the Korean War. He was a gunner. He never wanted to speak about it, and no one pushed him to.

But what is largely unspoken about the Korean War is itself unspeakable: nuclear weapons and nuclear war. This is what all the sanctions are about, what all the missile testing is about. So here’s a little reminder of where this went last time.

The great tactical seaborn invasion of Incheon that Liam Neeson figures himself into, was the beginning of the provocation that brought China and Soviet Russia man to man and plane to plane with the U.N. coalition led by the United States.

After that it goes even darker. President Truman seriously considered using nuclear weapons in that war.

At a November 1950 press conference, he told reporters that he would take whatever steps were necessary to win in Korea, including the use of nuclear weapons. Those weapons, he added, would be controlled by military commanders in the field. In the following year he allowed nine nuclear bombs with fissile cores to be transferred into Air Force custody and transported to Okinawa. Further atomic-capable B-29s were sent to Okinawa. That is pretty close to nuclear war.

Armchair historians can argue whether the United States exercised considerable restraint in that war, whether the nuclear option was something to reasonably consider to turn the tide of a losing battle, or whether both sides carefully husbanded their strength and took some care moving up the escalatory ladder.

But you can say with some confidence that in the Korean War, nuclear escalation would have gone terribly for everyone involved. The United States would have caused dreadful pain to uncertain strategic advantage, potentially causing the Chinese and Russian Communist powers to escalate. The physical and human terrain of Korea would have endured awful suffering. The moral mandate of the U.N. resolutions authorising military intervention would have evaporated. And the world would have lost the nascent nuclear taboo, a taboo critical to the world surviving the escalation in nuclear bomb-making and bomb-testing capacity that continued into the 1980s.

In the washup, New Zealand did OK out of it. We got long term military security through the 1951 ANZUS Treaty which served its purpose during the Cold War, and a massive wool boom that got the economy through the remainder of the 1950s.

But what that history and near-history of the Korean War demonstrates is that even if it’s a pre-emptive strike to take out missile and nuclear capabilities, North Korea may feel it has to respond. This is the dilemma that strategists and policymakers face. It’s real, now.

Nor is some great U.N. coalition of forces a guarantee that they will prevail. If you want to see how very close the U.S. and its United Nations-mandated allies came to massive defeat, check out just one example at the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir.

This is a dangerous year. It’s really easy to follow Australia and Britain and build a fortress of self-involvement around oneself. But world has a terrible reputation for getting into our faces when we don’t want it to. Diplomacy defies death, but it only takes one dumb thing to really set things off. It’s only in my parents’ generation that South Korean President Park was nearly assassinated, recorded here:

The last time we had a Prime Minister with the capacity to take a major international stand on anything, was Helen Clark, but there have been others. If we have forgotten as a country that we have demonstrated the capacity to stand up for the powerless and be good diplomats, we have forgotten one major thing that made the world look up here, not down. I would like the next government to remember that, in this exceedingly dangerous year.

16 comments on “A lesson from South Korea ”

  1. Draco T Bastard 1

    And the world would have lost the nascent nuclear taboo, a taboo critical to the world surviving the escalation in nuclear bomb-making and bomb-testing capacity that continued into the 1980s.

    And is being ramped up again by the US.

  2. mauī 2

    Another blockbuster film and keeps the citizens primed for war.

  3. Sanctuary 3

    McArthur was the one demanding the use of nuclear weapons. When he went public Truman sacked him (at considerable political cost) to show the military does not get to debate national policy with the elected leadership.

    • Ad 3.1

      Bradley and Joint Chiefs supported it. Truman was preparing.

      But MacArthur was fired by Truman for his comments on Formosa, and others.

  4. RedLogix 4

    My uncle fought in the Korean War. He was a gunner. He never wanted to speak about it, and no one pushed him to.

    We have the war diary of my grand-auntie’s husband. He fought through every major battle of WW1 the NZ Divisions were involved and remarkably came home without a scratch. It’s a dry read, short on drama, long on implied horror.

    Like most he never spoke of it. Except once; at a family lunch my father asked him some question about it. There was a long pause, I remember my aunt looking apprehensive. Then uncle said, “Only a fool goes to a war”.

    And that apparently was all he ever said.

    As for a nuclear war now. I think for fear of the unsupportable consequences world leaders will likely step back. That will be the moment everything changes. Or not, in which case we will have change imposed on us.

  5. greywarshark 5

    Not something to bet on garibaldi, pray about, I think. Betting and lightly considering is just an example of a type of madness that seems inherent in human nature.

  6. dukeofurl 6

    The video shows the attempted assassination of Park who was speaking at a hotel conference in 1974, however he was not injured while his wife and one other was killed.
    In 1979 he was assassinated by his KCIA chief at a dinner at the official residence.

  7. A major concern that everyone is overlooking is China.

    Don’t forget it was their troops that poured across the Yalu in huge numbers. Don’t forget for the Chinese regime to survive it needs North Korea to act as a buffer.
    Don’t forget that China has come a very long way since 1950. It has a large and increasingly modern military.

    Long story short, don’t forget China.

    • dukeofurl 7.1

      For the two Koreas to re-unify, maybe China wants something big for it in return. ?
      Taiwan ?
      With US forces out of a unified Korea, that could be seen by China as a plus. They dont really need North Korea as a buffer in this modern age but having no US troops on peninsula would be preferred option.

      • Gabby 7.1.1

        Though how keen the South would be to take on rebuilding the North, and whether the Taiwanese would jump up to take one for the team, debatable. Sounds like a good deal for China though.

    • Stuart Munro 7.2

      It’s been a while since China engaged a first world enemy though, and judging by their naval defeat in 1895 (http://sinojapanesewar.com/yalu.htm) they might not hurry to confront any large power.

      Bullying the Philippines or the Malay states is a very different thing from engaging large modern professional forces. Even if China could restrain a US offensive it would only lose ground to Russia.

      Why does China need North Korea anyway? Because it doesn’t fancy an engagement on its own soil. Trump may be stupid enough, China not so much.

  8. Wayne 8

    There will not be a war in Korea. But China will be able to use the current crisis to strengthen its standing. Trump has given them the green light to come up with the political solution. Probably a strategic error by him. It means China now gets to set the agenda. Of course that might be best given their geographical position.
    And NZ might welcome joint US Chinese leadership in the Asia Pacific region. Safer for us and everyone else.

    • Stuart Munro 8.1

      Certainly compared to Gnat leadership, the Chinese would be a vast improvement. Almost anything would be.

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