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Ancient Chinese general's strategies should guide U.S. in dealing with N. Korea

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By Lou Kilzer

Published: Wednesday, April 10, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

Five centuries before Christ, Sun Tzu wrote “The Art of War,” which teaches enduring principles of combat:

Position troops so the enemy must face the sun. If an enemy leaves a door open, rush through. If outnumbered, retreat.

The book by the ancient Chinese general and military strategist is well-known among those in the military and in the business world. Its underlying theme was the axiom, “All warfare is based on deception.”

It is through this lens that Americans and others must view the situation with young North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. For if he has not yet had time to digest Sun Tzu, his generals certainly have, experts say.

A wise general who wanted to attack wouldn't announce it beforehand. He wouldn't pound war drums for weeks, giving an enemy time to reinforce already superior forces. He definitely wouldn't say he intended to incinerate several American cities and then move missiles into firing position in broad daylight.

Even launching a medium-range missile out to sea — which North Korea may do Wednesday — or at any time — is not really intended to ignite a war, experts told the Tribune-Review.

This is a bluff, said David Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.

“The North Koreans read Sun Tzu,” said Maxwell, a retired Special Forces colonel who served five tours in South Korea. “I don't think they want to go to war at all. This is not how you go to war.”

Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the East-West Center in Hawaii, agreed. The North Koreans, he said, “do not want to go to war.”

But Maxwell, Roy and other experts interviewed by the Tribune-Review over the recent course of rising North Korean stakes each separately used the exact same word — “miscalculation” — to describe deep concerns about what could happen.

“This situation is the most serious since the Korean War in the 1950s,” said Ellen Kim, a Korean scholar with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

Double the danger

The danger, Kim and the other experts say, is two-fold. First, the North's rhetoric this time is so bizarre that to do nothing after such a build-up would involve a loss of face. Likewise, Kim Jong-un may launch a missile to sea to save face, Kim said.

Losing face is one of the most dreaded things for a Korean or others in East Asia. In the Koreas, the concept is known as Kibun. There is no literal English translation, but it means to disrupt the balanced harmony in a relationship by hurting someone's pride or causing them to lose dignity.

South Korea's new leader, Park Geun-hey, “has made it clear that she will respond,” Kim said. Maxwell, Roy and Kim agree that opinion has changed in South Korea since 2010, when the North killed 50 South Koreans by sinking the naval ship Cheonan and firing shells at the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong.

The second danger is that in the past, South Koreans responded to threats from the North with nonchalance that often surprised people in the West. Not anymore, said Kim, who was raised in the South. “They killed Koreans.”

“If the North launches a kinetic operation (against the South), the South Korean military is going to respond,” Maxwell agreed.

The key, he said, is that the reaction be strong, swift and “at the point of provocation.” If it is delayed or non-proportional, it could produce a dreaded miscalculation.

Chinese leaders have soaked up Sun Tzu since grade school. Nowhere in “The Art of War” does it say a great power (China) should let a minor one (North Korea) determine the timing or place of a conflict with a deadly enemy regardless of any agreement.

Unlike the past, China has remained mostly quiet as the United States and its friends beef up forces in the region. The carrier USS John C. Stennis is paying a visit to the newly welcoming port of Singapore. B-2 stealth bombers made practice bomb runs during a visit to South Korea as part of annual war games with its ally that the North has blamed for its rancor. The most advanced fighter jets in the world, F-22s, are landing in the South.

Two anti-missile destroyers are prowling waters close to China, as is a huge radar platform reputed to be capable of following a baseball's flight from Los Angeles to New York. Other U.S. forces are being added to Guam. Japan is deploying Patriot defense missiles in event of a North Korean attack.

Past provocations

Just the assurance of destruction might not be enough if the North miscalculates. The first of the Kim clan — grandfather Kim Il-sung — started a war in 1950 when Secretary of State Dean Acheson left out South Korea in a speech outlining American spheres of interest. That miscalculation cost more than 2 million lives, including 33,000 Americans.

The North was saved only by the intervention of China, but it never lost its willingness to push the limits.

In August 1976, two U.S. soldiers were trying to trim a poplar tree in the Joint Security Area near the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. Axe-wielding North Korean soldiers attacked and killed them.

Three days later, a convoy of American and South Korean vehicles with more than 800 soldiers returned to the tree and cut it down. Overhead flew helicopter gunships, B-52 bombers and various American jet fighters.

The North Koreans did nothing. Il-sung apologized for the deaths.

In 1983, North Korea tried to assassinate South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan in a bombing in Burma. Chun survived, but three top South Korean officials, including its foreign minister, died.

Five years later, North Korean agents bombed Korean Flight 858 while it was heading for Thailand. A North Korean spy later implicated Kim Jong-il, who was then in his father's administration, as the mastermind.

Then came the incidents in 2010 under leader Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011. South Korean, American and even Chinese tolerance began to wane.

“A lot of the North's behavior is what we've trained them to do over the years,” said Roy. After previous threats and actions, South Koreans and Americans usually gave the North what it wanted: food and face.

This time, the experts said, the United States must play its hand wisely.

As Sun Tzu wrote: “The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting.”

Lou Kilzer, a staff writer for Trib Total Media, was formerly editor-in-chief of The JoongAng Daily, an English-language newspaper in Seoul. Reach him at 412-380-5628 or



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