In the face of war threats from North Korea , South Korea promises to conduct artillery drills from Yeonpyeong Island, the island fired upon last month by North Korea’s forces in a move that brought the Korean Penninsula to the brink of open warfare, where it has remained every since, despite numerous failed efforts to resolve the crisis and defuse tensions. The UN sought to bridge the impasse, but China refused to join with the US and two other members of the permanent UN Security Council to condemn its ally North Korea for aggression . Therefore it is widely thought that South Korea’s actions to fire shells from a disputed island just south of the border is an act designed to provoke war.
Such an action would not be unheard of. In fact, disputed islands are themselves very useful territories to provoke open hostility between rival regimes. As a historian of the American Civil War, the situation on Yeonpyeong Island strongly resembles that in Fort Sumter in April 1861. Both South Korea’s leadership and the Lincoln Administration appear to have had in mind a provocation that would allow them to be seen as responding to the aggression of their neighbor rather than starting the war themselves. Let us examine some of the parallels between the current tensions over Yeonpyeong Island and Fort Sumter.
The Problem of Rival Regimes
Let us first remember that the Civil War and the current crisis in Korea stem from similar problems of civil conflict divided between “northern” and “southern” regimes that do not recognize each other’s legitimacy. In the case of the American Civil War, the North was a genuine republic governed by the rule of law while the South was a corrupt slavocracy which was unable to respect the result of free elections that caused them to lose (a problem North Korea shares). Likewise the Northern part of the US and South Korea are more commercially successful while North Korea and the South were focused primarily on backward social systems (plantation slavery, Communism) and highly militaristic. Between neighbors with such rival regimes there can be no permanent peace, only truces. All that takes to set off a shooting war is the right provocation.
The Prickly Sense of Honor
Part of the fundamental weaknesses of both North Korea and the Confederacy was an overly prickly sense of honor that threatens to cause warfare because of an unwillingness to lose face. Lincoln knew, in telling the governor of South Carolina that he was only attempting to resupply the garrison at Fort Sumter, rather than reinforce it with soldiers, that South Carolina (and the rest of the Confederate Army in Charleston Harbor) would be unwilling to resist the provocation because the permanent presence of a northern-held fortress in the very capital of secessionist fever was unacceptable to the delicate sense of honor of the rebels. So Lincoln knew that he could provoke a war and blame it on the South–which is precisely what happened because the rebels in Charleston were unable to accept any loss of face, preferring death to the slightest hint of dishonor. And so they charged into their own destruction.
Likewise, South Korea knows that the insecure and prickly North Koreans are seeking to preserve face and provide for a firm transfer of power to a pudgy young dictator-in-waiting. North Korea sees itself as a stronger military power than the South and views the economic wealth of South Korea and its more robust republican political culture as weaknesses or meaningless in a decision of arms. It is very likely, almost certain, that South Korea’s artillery tests, if the shells land at all in North Korea, will be seen as a direct and intolerable provocation that will lead to war. Apparently the United States and China are willing to let their allies fight it out, something that could be horribly destructive in terms of life and treasure lost.
The Goal of Unification
Likewise, the provocations over Fort Sumpter and Yeonpyeong Island have at their core the problem of unification and division. South Korea’s president has a clear desire to reunify the peninsula and is unwilling to accept the permanent division of Korea into two hostile states. He is even willing to tax his people at very high levels in order to pay for the expected costs of unification (which are estimated to be as much as a trillion dollars) . A shooting war to defeat a corrupt regime that cannot even provide for sufficient food for its people might be just part of the price that South Korea’s leadership is willing to pay for the goal of reunification of the Korean peninsula under a unified state.
Likewise, whether you approve or disapprove of Abraham Lincoln’s handling of the secession crisis of 1860 (and, for the record, I approve of it), one has to admit that Lincoln was prepared to accept a shooting war in order to preserve the union and to ensure the dominant position of the North in the reunified republic. Likewise, his administration was willing (as it showed) to expend massive amounts of blood and treasure to reunify the United States, and the expensive effort for twelve years after the war (after Lincoln’s assassination) to reconstruct the South was also something that succeeding administrations were willing to spend great amounts of money to accomplish, which were supported at least temporarily by the people of the North.
The Problem of International Alliances
The most thorny issue concerning the provocation between South Korea and North Korea is the threat of international involvement. Fortunately, the Civil War did not provoke a more global involvement in the conflict with other nations (like France or Great Britain or Russia), but it was a near run thing at times given the course of the war as well as various diplomatic crises (such as the Trent Affair and France’s involvement with seeking to care out an “empire” in Mexico). Once the Civil War was limited to being a war between North and South, instead of including foreign allies (as happened during the American Revolution when France, Spain, and the Netherlands all allied with the American patriots), the stronger economic and demographic position of the North was ultimately too much for the South to overcome.
It is very likely that the same would be true in a conflict between North and South Korea if there were no foreign alliances to tip the balance in either direction. South Korea has a stronger regime with more popular support, a stronger economic base, and a stronger population than North Korea, which has a large conventional army but a corrupt government and terrible logistics and economics. In a war between the two fought now, so long as both sides supported their regimes with equal fervor the South Korean regime has a much stronger position, though a war fought to the destruction of North Korea would cost hundreds of thousands of lives, in all probability. The difficulty is ensuring that the conflict between the two Korean regimes will not spill over into other fronts, like Japan, China, Taiwan, or the United States, which would be a much nastier and more brutal war (which I shudder to even think about). Let’s hope, for all of our sakes, that this crisis stays local and does not spill over.
I don’t know if a shooting war in the Korean Peninsula will result from South Korea’s artillery tests being conducted today, but I’d say the odds are high that South Korea’s effort at brinksmanship will lead to war, and if that happens none of the options are pleasant. Knowing the historical context of other similar situations to the current crisis on Yeonpyeong Island (like Fort Sumter) puts the current historical situation into a broader historical context, and reminds us that the stakes are high for conflicts like this which appear to be impossible to resolve by peaceful means because the honor and dignity of the parties involved is so brittle. May God have mercy on us all and let wiser and calmer counsel prevail, and rescue us from the folly we seem bent in following.
 I have already blogged about this war crisis in the following entry: