A flare from Cold War embers…

23 November 2010


In the first chapter of his Civilisation: A Personal View, Kenneth Clark wrote regarding the slow-motion collapse of civilization in western Europe:

“Of course, life must have gone on in an apparently normal way for much longer than one would expect. It always does. Gladiators would have continued to fight each other in the amphitheater of Arles; plays would still have been performed in the theater of Orange. And as late as the year 383 a distinguished administrator like Ausonius could retire peacefully to his estate hear Bordeaux to cultivate his vineyard (still known as the Château Ausone) and write great poetry, like a Chinese gentleman of the T’ang dynasty.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, “1. The Skin of our Teeth,” p. 4

But what is normal? The pleasing picture that Clark paints of a quiet retirement in the countryside after a life in service to imperial power suggests that peace is “normal.” I realized today that in other contexts (for example, in the violent context of the twentieth century) war is normal. Especially, the Cold War made war normal, and almost twenty years after the end of the Cold War the unresolved conflicts of the violent twentieth century can still flare up and show us the normalcy of a state of war.

Château Ausone still produces wine some 1,627 years after Ausonius retired here to a quiet life in the country to tend vines and write poetry.

The Korean war, as we all know, ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty. There has never been a peace treaty signed for the Korean War, and the armistice is regularly punctuated by violent incidents. The Korean War was the first proxy war of the Cold War — one could even say that it marked the true beginning of the Cold War — and since it has never been officially ended by a peace treaty, it is also the longest proxy war of the Cold War. There is more than a little historical irony in a proxy war that outlasts the entity for which it hosted a war. The latest violent punctuation of the Korean armistice involved an exchange of artillery fire in a dispute over Yeonpyeong Island.

The initial situation report at Strategic Forecasting about the incident ran as follows:

North Korea fired dozen of rounds of artillery shells upon the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong and into the waters near the countries’ disputed western border at 2:34 p.m. on Nov. 23, Yonhap and AP reported. Col. Lee Bung Woo of the South Korean Joint Chiefs of Staff said South Korea returned artillery fire.

Further details have been revealed since this time, but this captures what is essential about the incident. Yeonpyeong is one of five islands immediately on the South Korean side of the Northern Limit Line (NLL), which latter has never been formally accepted by North Korea. The other islands are Woodo, Socheongdo, Daecheongo, and the largest, Baengnyeongdo.

The Northern Limit Line was also the site of the sinking of the South Korean corvette ROKS Cheonan (PCC-772), which I discussed in The North Korean Model and What to do about North Korea. The two incidents — the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island — are linked by their disputed geography and are part of an ongoing continuum of escalation and deescalation that takes place along this frontier.

In What to do about North Korea I suggested that a robust response to the Cheonan sinking would have involved immediate retaliation by South Korea upon naval assets of North Korea. The more I have thought about this, the more I believe this to be the case. The lapse of time changes the meaning of any engagement — the political meaning, the diplomatic meaning, how it resonates with the public, and how it is treated in the press. If an incident involves immediate retaliation, even undertaken in error, it will be understood as one incident, and therefore an embodiment of tit-for-tat. (We know from both game theory and common sense that tit-for-tat with forgiveness is almost always the optimal strategy.)

If an immediate response is not made, even if a delayed retaliation is justified, any delayed response would be understood as an entirely distinct incident, and therefore would be treated in isolation. In practical terms, this would mean that the incident would be placed under intense scrutiny and compared to ideal standards that never obtain in fact. This would transform a delayed response into an escalation even when it is not an escalation but a retaliation of like for like: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, the lex talionis.

Time is of the essence. Time makes the difference between retaliation and escalation. Therefore it is of significance that South Korean forces immediately returned fire when Yeonpyeong Island was shelled by military forces of the DPRK. This was the appropriate course of action. A failure of retaliation is universally seen as a sign of weakness and a confirmation of the impunity of the initiator.

The North Korean submarine base at Pip'a Got, north of the NLL, may have been the port of the submarine that sank the ROKS Cheonan.

While we should be able to agree that immediate retaliation under these circumstances is justified tit-for-tat, one would not expect that there would be agreement as to what exactly constitutes a “tit” and what exactly constitutes a “tat.” This sounds like a minor quibble, but it is in fact centrally important: we can usually agree upon the principle, but not upon the practice or the implementation of a principle. What this means is that we share certain ideas and ideals, but how we map those ideas and ideals onto the actual world is different for different individuals and groups of individuals. In philosophical parlance, we have distinct ontologies even if we share an axiology.

The Haeju Naval Base and Ship Repair Yard is the major port for the DPRK West Fleet, and lies close to the NLL.

If, according to the accepted principles of induction, that the future will be like the past, further incidents of this kind are to be expected. This is the norm for the Northern Limit Line. In other words, the norm of an unresolved war is punctuated by minor engagements. As Clark said of the peaceful country life of the Roman Empire, even as that empire was collapsing, so we can say of the Korean War, even after the Cold War of which it was a proxy war has collapsed, that life will go on in an apparently normal way for much longer than one would expect. It always does. The norm of low-level Cold War conflict can be expected to go on in a “normal” way for longer than anyone expects.

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2 Responses to “A flare from Cold War embers…”

    • geopolicraticus said

      Dear JP,

      I’m glad you liked the post! I hope you also looked at what I wrote yesterday, Folded, Spindled, Mutilated. I was hoping you would read that piece, as it is in some ways reminiscent of my post about ratepayers, upon which you also commented. I feel like I am only beginning to scratch the surface when it comes to giving an adequate exposition of contemporary life in industrialized society. The hopeful thing is that, the more one scratches at the surface, the more likely one is to eventually penetrate to the heart of the matter.

      Best wishes,


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