SEOUL -- The recent surprise attack by the Palestinian militant group Hamas on Israel has prompted a serious question in Korea about our own security. Could Kim Jong-un, who supports Hamas, be inspired to launch a similar offensive and, if so, are we sufficiently prepared and armed to repel it?
There are good reasons to make the comparison. Israel was created in the same year as the two Koreas. Its issue with Palestinians is the longest-running military conflict in the world. The outbreak of war makes us think of our own long-running conflict with North Korea.
We should also note that, like the North-South Korea conflict, one participant is a democracy in alliance with America. That means it must abide by international law and standards of behavior to maintain that support, while the other may violate these standards and still win international sympathy.
Of course, the details differ. Hamas is the governing authority of the Gaza Strip, where two million people live in an area just over half the size of Seoul. Israel is bigger and economically stronger, but still small by the standards of Korea’s population and size. It has 9 million people in a space around the size of Gangwon province.
Being the weaker party, Hamas employs an unconventional military strategy. Its soldiers, like those of North Korea, also appear to us to be fanatic. We saw last week the deliberate targeting of civilians as a terror tactic. Hamas fighters murdered people at a music festival and went into villages and, chanting “God is great,” killed women and babies in their homes and took around 100 people back to Gaza as hostages.
It appears obvious that such behavior by a weak military against a powerful enemy will not just lead very quickly to defeat. It may well end with Hamas being obliterated. What, we should ask, is the point of such self-destruction?
Analysts say that the purpose of the surprise attack was to make Israelis doubt the capability of their military. Also, they say, it may have been an attempt to derail the historic move by Israel and Saudi Arabia toward diplomatic relations.
At first glance, it makes sense to dismiss the idea that North Korea, being weaker than South Korea, would risk the same fate. That is because while we see North Korea as sometimes difficult to understand, we believe they calculate their interests and act rationally. Note, for example, at times of provocation, North Korea is careful not to go too far that would prompt a South Korean retaliation because it knows it would lose.
Not everyone agrees with this assumption. As one analyst once said to me, “Sometimes, suicide presents itself as a rational choice.”
Of course, in defense planning, it is not wise to dismiss any scenario too quickly. The real question we should ask is, under what circumstances would North Korea take this suicidal risk and undertake this type of attack?
One motive would be to change the balance of power. For example, military planners in the South have considered for a long time that North Korea might bombard Seoul with artillery, launch a rapid invasion, capture the capital, and then call for a truce. Thus, the standoff between North and South would continue but with the prize of the capital, its 10 million people, and their know-how under Pyongyang’s control.
Although nobody expects such an attack any time soon, the country is prepared. Well, I should say we are mentally prepared. Last week, Defense Minister Shin Won-sik called for “completely destroying” enemy firepower capabilities in case of a provocation. Whether this is
enough is another matter. We actually have insufficient defense against the 1,000 artillery pieces which North Korea operates along the DMZ.
Still, in this scenario, it is assumed that the North Koreans would target strategic facilities and engage with military targets. There would be many civilian casualties, but this would not be their objective.
However, what if that was to change? What if there was a Hamas-like attack when they did attack unarmed men, women, and children in their homes? Under what circumstances might that happen?
The motive then, it seems, would be to provoke a reaction. In other words, North Korea would be prepared for a war to end the 75-year Korean conflict in its favor, but which it didn’t want to be blamed for starting. Such a war may involve some use of nuclear weapons.
Although in the chaos of such a nightmarish conflict, this may be lost, it would also no doubt want to be able to deny the initial provocation. It would disown the terrorists as rogue actors or the “Gangwon Province Liberation Front” or some such fictitious South Korea-based terrorists that the “warmongers” in the South were just using as an excuse.
It’s hard to imagine such a thing happening, but as we are seeing in Israel today, human
conflict seldom follows a predictable or pleasant path.
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