Pyongyang’s “pay attention to me! right! now!” routines seem calculated to convince the United States, South Korea, and Japan of one thing: that military force is the only effective long-term solution to North Korean intransigence. Which means, naturally enough, that Pyongyang’s recent rounds of “WTF” are most likely driven entirely by domestic DPRK politics.

World history is flush with with examples of more prosperous states repeatedly buying off uncouth and belligerent barbarians. But one has to wonder how far Pyongyang can push the South Koreans. Will there come a point when Seoul decides to risk war rather than see the DPRK’s retrograde regime become even more awash in “Sampson Option” capabilities? I assume that the South Korean policy toward North Korea is rooted in a belief that, if Seoul waits long enough, the regime will implode. But what if that calculation changes?

What makes this interesting (and dangerous), is that ROK forces–even without U.S. help–are more than a match for anything that the North Koreans can field. This means that the South Korean leadership has any number of plausible military options; if the South Koreans begin to significantly alter their assessment of current trends, these military options will likely appear increasingly attractive.

Still, none of this suggests an alteration in the basic factors that restrain Seoul:

  • Before they collapse, North Korean forces will kill a lot of South Koreans and do a lot of damage to South Korea’s economy;
  • The United States has no appetite for taking part in an additional large-scale military conflict;
  • Uncertainty surrounding Beijing’s likely actions in the event of a conflict; and
  • The significant challenges that would come from assuming control of North Korean territory if the conflict leads to ROK victory in a full-blown war. 

These four factors–two of which aren’t particularly manipulable–make significant escalation unlikely. But with the developments of the last two days, I’m less sanguine than I was even after the sinking of the Cheonan–especially about the long-term prospects for a peaceful Korean peninsula.

UPDATE: that there’s some serious brinksmanship.

South Korea warned today that it will unleash “enormous retaliation” if North Korea launches fresh attacks against its territory.

North Korean troops bombarded Yeonpyeong, an island in disputed waters, with dozens of rounds of artillery earlier today, reportedly killing two South Korean soldiers and injuring around 20 people.

Seoul placed its military on its highest non-wartime alert level, scrambling F-16 fighter jets to the western sea and returning fire, officials said. It warned that the attack was a violation of the armistice that ended the Korean war in 1953.

The South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, who convened an emergency security meeting shortly after the initial bombardment, said an “indiscriminate attack on civilians” could never be tolerated.

“Enormous retaliation should be made, to the extent that [North Korea] cannot make provocations again,” he said.

While war remains unlikely, audience-cost dynamics can combine with political miscalculations in unexpected, and unpleasant, ways.