Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Korea: How Wars Can Start Between Countries Whose Leaders Don’t Want War

It is generally assumed that when a great war breaks out, at least one of the parties to the conflict wanted it. That assumption can be wildly wrong. None of the regimes at the helm of the powers that went to war against one another in Europe in 1914 wanted a great war. But they got one through miscalculation, bluff and counter bluff. Four years later, millions of people had been killed and three of the great powers of Europe had been torn to shreds, four if you count the Ottoman Empire.

The conflict in the Korean peninsula is super-charged with many of the same combustible materials that blew up Europe nearly a century ago. The chances are that the present crisis will not end in a great war. But the potential for that outcome is certainly there.

Here’s how the First World War started.

In June 1914, the heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, traveled to Bosnia to observe military exercises. In the southern reaches of the empire, Bosnia was located next door to Serbia, whose political leaders and nationalist activists hoped to create a South Slav state, Yugoslavia, that would tear a large chunk of territory out of Austria-Hungary.

Nationalist agitations were eating away at the integrity of the multi-national Austro-Hungarian Empire on the eve of the First World War. Despite warnings that the visit of the Archduke to Bosnia and the military exercises could lead to trouble with Serbian nationalists, the government in Vienna decided that it had to go ahead with its announced plans. Cancelling the Archduke’s journey to Bosnia would only fan the flames of Serb extremists in the opinion of the empire’s rulers.

The military exercises were held; the archduke and his wife attended. Then the royal couple visited Sarajevo and a would-be assassin stepped into the street to hurl a bomb at the Archduke’s car. Franz Ferdinand coolly seized the bomb and hurled it out of harm’s way where it exploded. Instead of rushing the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne out of town, the visit to Sarajevo continued. A last minute change in the route taken by the archduke’s car brought him and his wife face to face with another assassin from Serbia, who shot and killed them both.

The date was June 28, 1914. The countdown to war began. From then until the outbreak of a European war, there were many twists and turns that don’t need to be recounted here.

The Austro-Hungarian regime concluded that this was an opportunity to capitalize on the Europe-wide sympathy in their favour in the aftermath of the assassination and to deliver a blow to the Serbs to remove them as a threat to the integrity of the empire. Austria-Hungary’s powerful ally Germany was prepared to go along with Vienna’s plan to get tough with Serbia. How tough was another matter.

Russia, whose rulers saw themselves as the protectors of their “little Slav brothers” was not willing to allow Austria-Hungary to launch a military strike against an isolated Serbia. Meanwhile, the pre-eminent concern of those at the helm of France was to prevent anything from undoing their alliance with the Russians. If they were ever to face a war against Germany as they had in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, the French wanted it to be a two-front war with the Russians attacking Germany from the east.

Only a little more removed were the British, the allies of the French and the Russians, who were much more committed to defending France against a German attack than either the British public or the members of the British Parliament had been informed.

On the evening of July 23, the Austro-Hungarian government addressed an ultimatum to the government of Serbia, giving the leaders in Belgrade until 6.00 p.m. on July 25 to reply. The ultimatum insisted that the Belgrade regime agree to a list of ten demands, including the disbanding of ultra-nationalist Serb organizations, the banning of publications directed against Austria-Hungary, a direct role for the government in Vienna in judicial proceedings against the planners and perpetrators of the assassination, the arrest of certain named individuals, and steps to prevent arms and explosives from being sent across the border to South Slav nationalists in Bosnia. The ultimatum was drafted to so demean Serbia and interfere with its sovereign authority that government leaders in Belgrade would have to turn down at least some of its demands.

Vienna wanted a localized war against Serbia. But Russia’s government was not prepared to let this happen. On July 25, the Tsarist government ordered the partial mobilization of its armed forces, a measure that deeply alarmed the rulers of Germany. In the doctrine of the day, the side that mobilized first was reckoned to have an immense advantage over its foes. Mobilization, therefore, would mean war.

Just prior to 6.00 p.m. on July 25, the Serbian government formally replied to Austria and when the Austrians determined that Belgrade had not acceded to all of the demands in the ultimatum, the Austro-Hungarians broke diplomatic relations with the Serbs. On July 28, Austria Hungary declared war on Serbia.

Efforts were made by the leaders of the now fully alarmed governments of the other major powers to find a peaceful solution. Especially in Berlin and London, governments floated various proposals to halt the rush to war. But the imperative that determined the outcome was the insistence of the generals that mobilization on one side had to be countered with mobilization on the other and that once the military machine was set in motion, frontiers had to be crossed and war had to ensue.

The Russians ordered general mobilization and that was followed by general mobilization in Austria Hungary. On August 1, the French and the Germans mobilized. Then came the declarations of war. When the Germans demanded that Belgium allow German troops to cross Belgian territory en route to an invasion of France, and the government in Brussels said no to this, Britain declared war on Germany. It is almost certain that Britain would have gone to war even without the violation of Belgian neutrality, but the German assault on little Belgium cemented the support for war of the British cabinet, parliament and public.

Thus began the war that no one wanted.

What about Korea today?

North Korea, the ally of China, is going through a regime change. Power is being transferred from the ailing Kim Jong Il to his son Kim Jong Un, a delicate exercise which carries with it the potential for a coup d’etat against the family dynasty.

At such moments, a secretive regime such as the one in Pyongyang is concerned, above all else, with asserting its strength, both at home and abroad.

That’s where relations with South Korea and its major ally the United States come into play.

The Korean War ended in an armistice, with a ceasefire on July 27, 1953, between the warring parties----the South Koreans, the Americans and other United Nations forces on one side and the North Koreans and the Chinese on the other. The war brought the U.S. military into direct conflict with the Chinese, and threatened the world with the use of nuclear weapons by both sides, since the nuclear-armed Soviet Union backed North Korea and China in the conflict.

No peace treaty has been signed in Korea. Border disputes in Korea, both on land and sea, have resulted in incidents along the frontier in the past, including the recent shelling by North Korea of a South Korean island. Two South Korean marines and two civilians died during the assault. Earlier this year, the North is believed to have launched a torpedo attack on a South Korean warship, killing 46 sailors.

Over the last few days, the United States and South Korea have been holding joint military exercises off the west coast of the Korean peninsula in the Yellow Sea. The nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS George Washington, led the forces in the drill.

The trouble with the Yellow Sea is that it is China’s front door. The Chinese government does not like to have U.S. aircraft carriers on the seas a mere five hundred kilometers from Beijing. For decades, China’s leaders have objected to any entry into the Yellow Sea by American aircraft carriers. Just prior to the current exercises, Beijing issued a warning that it is opposed to what it calls any “unilateral military act” in the area without its permission. Chinese military leaders have rhetorically asked whether the United States would allow China to hold military exercises just off its east or west coasts.

We have learned from the recent Wiki Leaks releases, to no one’s surprise, that Chinese authorities have told the Obama administration about the frustrations of dealing with the paranoid regime in Pyongyang. It is one thing for the Chinese to share light moments with Americans about the wackiness of North Korea’s rulers, it is another to think that the Chinese would be happy with having a U.S. ally entrenched on their frontier in the event of the collapse of the Pyongyang regime and the unification of the Korean Peninsula under the rule of Seoul.

What makes Korea so dangerous is the presence of four governments that cannot afford to be seen to back down. The North Korean regime obviously falls into that category. But so too does the current government in Seoul that is publicly committed to taking a hard line in response to any military incidents initiated by the North. And the Obama administration is far from strong in the aftermath of the drubbing the Democrats received in the recent Congressional elections.

President Obama is looking weak everywhere at the moment. He can’t talk the Republicans into ratifying a nuclear weapons treaty with Russia right now---he needs a two-thirds vote in the Senate for ratification---and the Russians are warning of a possible new nuclear arms race.

So Obama can’t afford to back down in Korea----thus the presence of the USS George Washington.

Beijing may go along with all of this. But the rulers of China are well aware that they run the world’s new superpower and they’ll only stand for so much provocation in the Yellow Sea.

We’ll likely get through this incident in one piece. But what about the next one, and then the one after that? The assassination the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914 was not the first grave crisis to embroil the European Great Powers in the years before the outbreak of the First World War. It just happened to be the one that got out of control.

That kind of problem exists in Korea. A sudden incident, given the array of forces in the region----the assassination of a South Korean leader for instance, or some other dramatic development----could trigger a chain of events that no one could stop. That’s how leaders who don’t want a war, but who can’t afford to back down can end up sending the Great Powers they rule into conflict against one another.


Anonymous said...

The problem is that the US doesn't like to negotiate with its enemies unless it's to accept their surrender. Vietnam, Cuba. So things fester. And then there are incidents. So the US responds by looking tough. Making peace takes courage; Obama hath it not. We'll scrape by this one, though. But the US and its allies can't keep on playing this game.
By the way, the reunification of Korea as with Germany looks like a good solution, only the North Korean regime won't fade away like the East German. China will have to live with a reunified Korea, one that doesn't allow US missiles on the China-Korea border.

Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

The big question here is, Does the American military exercise 500 kilometers from Beijing needlessly violate chinese sovereignty? Can't America tell China to keep north korea in check, using better diplomatic means. China will not be pushed around canada is.

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