One of my favorite shows on television, and one of the only MTV-network reality shows I can stand watching, is a program called Bully Beatdown. Over the course of a half-hour episode, a victim of bullying sends in a video, the bully is then videotaped, and then a mixed-martial artist is introduced before two rounds of fighting usually end up with a humbled bully and a victim with thousands of dollars and some well-earned frontier justice. If you are unfamiliar with the show, it’s a good one, and as someone who had to stand up to bullies as a small child, and continues to detest bullying of any kind to this day, it is nice to see a show that promotes speaking to bullies in the only language they understand–force.
Earlier this week, the rogue hermit kingdom of North Korea deliberately and provocatively shelled a heavily inhabited South Korean island just across the armistice line. South Korea has promised a very strong response, and is under a great deal of pressure from its own people to stand up to its bully to the north. The United States and China, the two other parties to the armistice that ended the shooting war between North and South Korea in 1953, are obviously concerned about the ripple effects of any resumption of active warfare between these two states that have been enemies for more than sixty years, with no permanent state of peace between them at any point.
It remains unclear precisely why North Korea chose to attack the civilians of a peaceful South Korean island with artillery fire. At least two reasons have been posited by security experts interviewed so far: either they are trying to flex their muscle to ensure a better position at the bargaining table with South Korea or they are trying to show that the pudgy ruler-to-be of North Korea, the youngest son and heir of North Korea’s ailing dictator, is a strong ruler and a force to be reckoned with. The South Koreans as well are deeply concerned, as this is the second deliberate act of war undertaken within the last year in North Korea, and their own people are antsy, and eager for their government to stand up bravely in their defense.
It is unclear what response South Korea will undertake to demonstrate their own determination, though it could involve air strikes, artillery attacks of their own, or other means. As of yet, the nearly 30,000 American soldiers in South Korea have not been placed on any kind of heightened alert, and the diplomats are saying all the right peaceful words, but at the same time there is definitely a sense of heightened concern. There is the widespread and ominous thought that any further provocations will lead to a resumption of a shooting war in the Korean Peninsula, possibly bringing in allies on both sides (China and the United States) with the threat of hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of civilian casualties on both sides and the possible destruction of the state of North Korea. These are obviously very serious stakes, and no one wants to make a false move to trigger a larger confrontation than is absolutely necessary.
It is wondered why North Korea would do such a thing as attack innocent civilians and provoke a war that might end up in their destruction? Bullying is not a rational sort of calculation, but it is at least understandable. Bullies are themselves insecure about their power, so they feel the need to flex their muscle around those they disrespect or think of as weaker, or who do not defend themselves in the way that they understand. Bullies also like and enjoy the power they hold over others, even if they hold those they bully in absolute contempt and disrespect. Tyrants like the leaders of North Korea are themselves merely bullies on a larger scale with the threat of nuclear warfare to back up their bullying. The psychology is the same even if the stakes are far more grave than fighting on a schoolyard.
How is one to respond to such a threat, though? It is clear, and wise, that South Korea has no intention of backing down or accepting such bullying without response. After all, they know their dignity and self-respect is on the line, and that safety depends on convincing the would-be bully that they are strong enough to defend themselves. Proving that in a language comprehensible to the North Koreans without damaging the self-respect of the prickly hermit people’s dictatorship enough to provoke a larger conflict will be difficult, but the fault for that lies on the aggressors, not those who respond in self-defense. Hopefully, the North Koreans can feel comfortable that they have shown their strength while retaining a respect for the strength of the South Koreans, and things can settle down back into the normal amount of tension. However, when dealing with bullies, there is always the chance that a measured response will fail to have its desired response and such attacks will continue. If that happens, North Korea may just receive a bully beatdown, but it’s not likely to be pretty for anyone else around.