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Would North Korea start a war?

April 11, 2013 - Harry Eagar
All the opinionators I have seen are agreed that North Korea is not likely to start a war. Most cite the apparently obvious fact that they could not win it, although that never deterred George W. Bush.

RtO has no way of assessing what the Norkoms want to do or might do. It does, however, know how similarly situated states behaved in the past 100 years. They often went to war.

Most of the war deaths of the 20th century came in fights initiated by states that had no reasonable prospect of winning. Although, as it happened, often enough they won anyway. It depends largely upon whether you have big, firm friends.

World War I began because Conrad, the chief of the Austro-Hungarian general staff, believed his army could handle Serbia (true) and its big friend Russia (false). For reasons that are hard to justify, German generals are highly thought of by most military historians.

Conrad's polyglot and disaffected conscript army did not much want to fight anyone, and some of the ones who did want to fight wanted to fight the Austrian Germans. Others were opposed to fighting fellow Slavs. Similar problems faced Saddam Hussein, but they did not prevent him from starting two wars either.

Conrad's officers, promoted on the basis of birth, religion or nationality, were, as one would expect, unimpressive. Again, like Hussein's.

On the other hand, in 1915, when it was apparent how bad the Austro-Hungarian army was, the Italians switched sides to fight the Germans. Although the Italians had been bested by even the Ethiopians at Adowa, and had had indifferent success against even the Arabs in Tripoli, they thought themselves superior. In about 20 murderous "battles of the Isonzo," neither side had any success.

Memories of Italian fecklessness failed to deter Italy from starting wars with France, Greece and Britain, against all of whom it failed in 1939-40.

Remarkably, in 1939 the German army was nervous about taking on the Poles despite an advantage of around 10 to 1. The easy victory then went to their heads, and they went off to war against the USSR not expecting even to have to fight.

They had the advantage of watching the Red Army struggle weakly against the Finns, but they should have paid more attention to the Red Army's annihilation of the Japanese Kwantung army at Nomonhan. The Germans were so confident the Russians would collapse without a fight they didn't bother to order clothing for a winter campaign. Evidently they, like George Bush, imagined an occupation would take care of itself.

Skipping over a variety of conflicts, the Vietnamese rose against the French despite few resources. This is not exactly an example of a lesser power going to war against a greater; it is more like one of history's many examples of desperate risings against an oppressor. Later, however, once they had a state, the North Vietnamese dared to take on the Americans. And they beat them, one example of an underdog winning through.

Going back to the Norkoms, in 1950 they had every rason to think they could conquer the South Koreans, who didn't even have an army. They apparently thought they could occupy the peninsula before the Americans could react, and they were almost right. But not quite.

It is hard to figure what lesson he Norkoms carried away from the 1950-53 war. My sense is that whatever hardheaded lessons were learned have been lost with the deaths of the men who learned them. As far as I can tell, 60 years of indoctrination about the victory of 1950 probably has produced a military high command that believes it to be a fact that the Koreans defeated the Americans.


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