Why North Korea Must be Taken Seriously

April 9th, 2013

Today’s news suggests a more cavalier attitude in some circles towards North Korea’s daily threats to launch war against its neighbors. According to reports, North Korea is now advising that foreigners leave South Korea or seek shelter in the coming days in order to protect themselves from the onslaught of the coming North Korean assault.

Given the cartoonish nature of the new North Korean leader and the history of that regime, many foreigners are ignoring the threats as mere bluster. While most acknowledge that these over the top threats from the North can’t be dismissed completely, they also feel fairly confident that these threats will not materialize into actual war.

While I certainly hope they’re correct, I do know from studying history that war can erupt easily over miscommunications, miscalculations, and sheer stupidity.

In the United States, two conflicts began in such fashion.

In 1859, the Pig War started over the shooting of a pig.  The conflict originated over a long-standing dispute about the boundary between the United States and British North America.  The area in dispute included a small island called San Juan Island.  The “crisis” began when an American living on the island killed a pig he’d discovered eating potatoes in his garden.  Evidently, the pig belonged to an Irishman working for the Hudson Bay Company.  Outraged, the pig’s owner contacted British authorities demanding the American’s arrest.  Immediately, other Americans living on the island became angry and called for United States military protection.  Soldiers arrived to help while three British naval ships headed toward the island to confront the Americans and protect British interests.

Before full fledge war broke out, President James Buchanan (who was utterly incompetent in preventing war between his own citizens two years later) sent General Winfield Scott to broker a peace with the British.  Fortunately, all-out war and bloodshed was averted by an agreement which allowed both countries to keep a military presence on the island with troops from the two countries initially just staring each other down (sound familiar?).

For the next twelve years, British and U.S. military forces lived side by side on the island.  Unlike the current state of affairs on the border between North and South Korea, the British and U.S. forces learned to deal with their forced coexistence by throwing parties for each other and engaging in athletic competitions.  Evidently, the only threat of conflict breaking out between the two countries at the time stemmed from “the large amount of alcohol available.”

Fortunately, the only casualty of that conflict was the pig (granted, if you were the pig it was tragic).

A better known U.S. war resulting from either a misunderstanding or an outright lie is the Spanish-American War.  For those who remember history class, the direct cause of the outbreak of that war was the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in Cuba.  American newspapers immediately blamed Spain for sinking the ship while later investigations by both countries came to a variety of conclusions as to the actual cause.  Whatever the real reason for the blast, in the end, it ultimately didn’t matter.  War began.

Clearly, war can start in a variety of ways, even quite unexpected ways.  Thus, when a morally deprived leader and regime with nuclear weapons begins saber rattling, prudence is on the side of taking things very seriously.