I have avoided writing about the current shenanigans from the Norks next door, a.k.a. Fat Boy's Fireworks Show, but, with military contractor friends urging me to get out of Dodge and other friends previously stationed here expressing concern, it may be time to do so.
I've been reading as much, if not more, as most of the saber-rattling/bluster from the Norks, monitoring the response from the South's new President Park Geun-hye, a woman who has never been accused of being a skilled communicator, and watching Washington's recent displays of military might. I've also read copious analyses and opinion pieces on what might/could/should/won't happen and am honest enough to admit what most pundits do not - we have very little idea what Fat Boy will do next, or how far he will go.
What we do know, perhaps, is how little we know. All agree that such blustering from the Norks, particularly during annual joint exercises between the U.S. and South Korea are nothing new. Anyone who has been in the South for even a year or two and follows the news is aware of multiple threats to turn Seoul and its lapdog puppet-masters of the Great Satan (you know who you are) into a "sea of fire." Ho-hum, again?
Having said that, there are differences this time, on all sides. The North, in this round of threats, warned of pre-emptive strikes on the continental U.S. and its territories. It has also, in past weeks, disconnected the two hotlines between the rancorous neighbors, declared a unilateral end to the Armistice and declared it is at a "state of war" with the South (I'm not sure how that trumps ending the armistice but, hey, I work daily with Koreans and don't pretend to follow their unique chain of logic).
The South has also upped its rhetoric. After the Norks torpedoed a ROK Navy patrol vessel in 2010, resulting in the deaths of 46 sailors and one rescue diver, then shelled a border island that same year, killing two soldiers and two civilians, then President Lee Myung-bak ordered rapid retaliation from the ROK military to any similar "provocations." The current president has also told the military to react firmly against any similar moves from the north.
The U.S., for its part, has openly displayed some of the serious firepower available in any escalated conflict on the peninsula, including publicized flyovers by nuclear-capable B52 bombers and B2 Spirit stealth bombers and the deployment of a sea-based radar platform, (which looks uncannily like it came from a Star Wars movie) closer to the Korean coastline. That's some impressively scary stuff, especially aimed at a country that is thought to have problems buying fuel for its own aircrafts.
Let's not forget, however broke they may be, that the Norks have long had enough conventional artillery aimed straight at Seoul and other points of interest to level the city to a state and financial outlook reminiscent of the scorched earth outcome of the (until recently suspended) Korean War. It also has a new, young, untested and unknown leader who is thought to be fighting to consolidate his power. Fat Boy is also the son and grandson of two dictators who were never told by anyone, "That might not be a good idea," at least probably not by anyone who survived the advice. He grew up observing his father's brand of toddler tantrum politics that consisted of what I term the "carrot, stick, temper tantrum, candy" approach. The UN and other supposedly adult interested parties offer the Norks a choice of carrot or stick - economic and food aid versus sanctions - the Norks accept the carrot then misbehave anyway then expect to be lured back to the adult table with sweeteners of more aid and more respect. It's a pattern that has been repeated constantly and, as with any toddler, its hard to blame the child for reverting to what it has been rewarded for in the past. (Yes, I know most toddlers aren't playing with nukes, missiles or in a playpen with Iran.)
Oh, and let's not exclude the world's second-largest economy from this equation. China has been trying to socialize it's younger neighbor and encourage it to open to the outside world in a limited way, but the Norks are starting to exasperate their remaining ally and financial benefactor as well. China supported the latest UN sanction against the North in a fairly public hand-slap and rt - an online Russian news outlet - is reporting that China has mobilized its own military near the border with North Korea. China, like the South, faces a lose-lose situation with the North. It does not want a failed state on its doorstep with hordes of refugees streaming across the border, neither does it want South Korea or the U.S. military on its threshold. It would like everyone to get along, without the escalating threats, and for some openness from the North to bring in outside funds and reduce its own outlays. Again, the toddler refuses to listen.
So, we wait and see. The main concern I see among military friends here is from those new to the Peninsula and its inhabitants' behavior, good and bad. Which doesn't mean others are complacent, as most are aware of how much we don't and can't know and how much any analysis of the North is primarily guesswork and conjecture, with a large dose of prayer and crossed fingers thrown in.
But, I and most I know will stay, while constantly testing the wind. And hope that the escalating game of military chicken doesn't end with someone failing to turn in time . . .