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The Next Korean War

north korean attack south island shell war conflict asia china usa politics nuclearIt will not be happening anytime soon. In this instance, it’ll take more than artillery fire from the cranky and infantile North to scrap any armistice agreement and unleash the dogs of war.  South Koreans have long dealt with the volatility of its borders, especially in the highly disputed waters and the surrounding islands. For most South Koreans, its business as usual while their government answers back to the North’s shelling. The public is very much taking the attitude that it always blows over.

However, it would be a mistake to underestimate the degree of escalation caused by North Korea’s shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. For the first time since the Korean war, a large group of South Korean civilians were attacked by North Korea. Had the artillery fire killed hundreds instead of injuring them, the National Assembly in Seoul would likely be having a different conversation.

Yet, the full engagement of a military confrontation remains elusive. President Lee and his predecessors have all had to do a cost-benefit analysis of engaging in war with North Korea. Just about every scenario ends with utter devastation, even with U.S. backing. South Korea has one of the lowest birth rates out of the OECD countries, coupled with densely populated urban centers that are ill-equipped for mass evacuations. While various media outlets stress a correlation between the North’s nuclear development and its belligerence, Kim Jong il has never needed the atom to bully his brethren. North Korea holds more short-range ballistic missiles than any other country in the world, and could level Seoul in minutes. Since South Korea’s overnight ascension as a global power, it’s success remains its most valuable and vulnerable asset.

For these reasons, the Grand National Party may talk tough for the next few months, but any moderate to large scale war would crush South Korea’s economy to levels not seen since the 50s. President Lee's advisors know the consequences and are apprehensive to engage in more comprehensive warfare.

As always, China remains the linchpin, frustrating and vexing the international community. How much will China allow? Will it continue to play the wealthy patron to the penniless dictator even in the face of coastal continental annihilation? Yesterday’s artillery shots on South Korea should be a wake-up call to Beijing. Without a substantial and meaningful embargo, China may find itself the creator of a monster it can no longer tame.

Dave Zeglen is a Contributing Writer based in South Korea

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