Kang 10 – professor of international relations and business and director of the Korean Studies Institute at the University of Southern California (12/31/10, David C., “Korea’s New Cold War,” http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/koreas-new-cold-war-4653)
However, despite dueling artillery barrages and the sinking of a warship, pledges of “enormous retaliation,” in-your-face joint military exercises and urgent calls for talks, the risk of all-out war on the Korean peninsula is less than it has been at anytime in the past four decades. North Korea didn’t blink, because it had no intention of actually starting a major war. Rather than signifying a new round of escalating tension between North and South Korea, the events of the past year point to something else—a new cold war between the two sides.
In fact, one of my pet peeves is the analogies we use to describe the situation between South and North Korea. We often call the situation a “powder keg” or a “tinderbox,” implying a very unstable situation in which one small spark could lead to a huge explosion. But the evidence actually leads to the opposite conclusion: we have gone sixty years without a major war, despite numerous “sparks” such as the skirmishing and shows of force that occurred over the past month. If one believes the situation is a tinderbox, the only explanation for six decades without a major war is that we have been extraordinarily lucky.
I prefer the opposite explanation: deterrence is quite stable because both sides know the costs of a major war, and both sides—rhetoric and muscle-flexing aside—keep smaller incidents in their proper perspective.
How can this be, when North Korea threatens to use massive retaliation and mentions its nuclear weapons in its rhetoric, and when the South Korean leadership and military is determined to "respond relentlessly " to meet any North Korean provocation?
Local skirmishing has stayed local for sixty years. The key issue is whether a local fight could escalate into all-out war, such as North Korea shelling Seoul with artillery or missiles. Such a decision would clearly have to be taken at the top of the North Korean leadership. Especially when tensions are high, both militaries are on high alert and local commanders particularly careful with their actions. Without a clear directive from the top, it is not likely that a commander one hundred kilometers away from the military exercises would make a decision on his own to start shooting at Seoul. For their part, North Korean leaders have not made such a decision in sixty years, knowing that any major attack on Seoul would cause a massive response from the South Korean and U.S. forces and would carry the war into Pyongyang and beyond.After the fighting, North Korea would cease to exist.
Thus, while both North and South Korean leaders talk in grim tones about war, both sides have kept the actual fighting to localized areas, and I have seen no indication that this time the North Korean leadership plans to expand the fighting into a general war.