[Viewpoint] Are we really ready to go to war?If physical evidence suggesting North Korea’s involvement in the sinking of Cheonan is dredged up from the dark sea, the nation and its citizens will be faced with a complicated agony. Article 51 of the United Nations Charter clearly acknowledges the “inherent right of individual or collective self-defense.” When the Palestinian militant organization Hamas continued rocket attacks, Israel moved into Palestine and completely devastated the base of Hamas. The United States toppled one regime for each of the World Trade Center towers. While the intensity of those retaliations is controversial, no developed country tolerates provocation without punishing the offender. If Korea is a proper nation, it should, in principle, destroy the North Korean submarine base.
However, the problem is that Korea is different from the United States and Israel. The United States is overwhelmingly powerful, and Israel is experienced in all-out war. Korea is not absolutely dominant and has many things to worry about. We need to take into account whether a limited retaliation would develop into a local or total war; whether Korea can afford to wage all-out war; whether the United States would support Korea’s war effort; how the citizens are prepared to handle the presence of nuclear weapons; whether China would enter the war as it did 60 years ago; and whether the war would lead to reunification in the end. These are truly complicated, existential and frightening questions. They are true dilemmas that cannot be avoided.
As many times in history have shown us, individuals and nations cannot respond to the present with the luxury of knowing the future. If you navigate the present based on principles and norms, you can usually put yourself on a favorable course for the future. An enemy attack resulted in a sunken naval corvette and over 40 crew members dead. This is not the first such provocation, and there is a high possibility that a similar attack will occur again in the future.
What should a conscientious nation do?
First of all, the military must not be swayed by political considerations. Their duty is to draw up a specific plan on how to bombard the North Korean submarine base and how the Korea-U.S. combined forces would work together if North Korea decided to escalate the war. Then, the choice is the president’s to make. According to the Korea-U.S. wartime operational control agreement, the Korean armed forces need to obtain the consent of the U.S. to use military force against North Korea. The president needs to contemplate whether to accept the proposal from the military and persuade the United States, or to bring the case to the United Nations Security Council. Whatever he decides to do, the president needs to be able to convince the nation. No matter what the final choice may be, the president and the citizens must have a consensus that Korea is a country that can make up its mind to go to war.
In the history of the Republic of Korea, there has been only one occasion when the nation has decided to go to war after a military provocation or terrorist attack. On Aug. 18, 1976, United Nations troops were attacked by North Korean soldiers while trimming a poplar tree in the demilitarized zone at Panmunjom. North Korean soldiers killed two American officers with axes. The next morning, Kim Il Sung ordered the North Korean military into battle position. However, President Park Chung Hee did not back down. Park reached an agreement with the U.S. forces to recapture Kaesong and advance to Yeonbaek Plain if North Korea made another provocation. And on Aug. 21, the UN Command carried out Operation Paul Bunyan to cut down the tree instead of just trimming the branches. North Korea could not provoke Korea in the same way again. For the first time since the war, Kim Il Sung sent a message expressing regret for the incident to the United Nations Command.
Some might say that the situation is different now that North Korea has nuclear weapons. However, actually using a nuclear weapon will mean the self-destruction of the North Korean regime, so Pyongyang can’t resort to the nuclear card easily. And just because North Korea has nuclear weapons, South Korea cannot live as a hostage forever. Let’s say there’s a gangster notorious for poking out people’s eyes. If he was attempting to kidnap your loved one, would you avoid a showdown, fearing you might lose your eyes? You have to be prepared to suffer some damage before making up your mind to go to war. You can avoid war even when you are ready and resolute about your ability to make war. What happened at Panmunjom 34 years ago illustrates this point.
Even if the president decides to foreswear retaliation, he needs to induce profound contemplation and consensus among the citizens. There would have to be a painful consensus that Korea will opt not to retaliate, not because it cannot make up its mind to fight but because the other choice is the better choice. Only then will Korea be a country with a soul.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.
By Kim Jin