Last week, North and South Korea swapped artillery shells across their sea border, the location of which is disputed (well, duh — it's invisible, guys). These exchanges are something of a regular ritual on the Korean peninsula. They have become so commonplace that the firing of several hundred rounds of heavy artillery over an international boundary has somehow become a little… boring.
Well, let’s hope that the standoff across the DMZ continues to underwhelm, because it has generated a couple of interesting twists that might yet produce something really dramatic and scary.
Observers around the world took notice when this year’s joint United States-South Korea military exercises finally elicited the North’s unplanned (but regularly scheduled) participation. In response to South Korea and the US doing what they do every year, North Korea fired some 500 artillery rounds — 100 of which even made it all the way across the sea boundary, wreaking all manner of aquatic mayhem.
South Korea scrambled some of its F-15K jets (a Korean variant of the F-15 Eagle), which wasn’t that unusual for this sort of thing. However, at least one of these jets apparently had two things that made all the difference: advanced long-range cruise missiles, and orders to use them. The Standoff Land Attack Missile - Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) missiles have a range of 170 miles, allowing a jet to hit practically anything inside North Korea without having to leave South Korean airspace. True to form for military hardware, the Korean jets are sometimes referred to as the F-15K Slam Eagle, which sounds hella cool even if it doesn’t really make a lot of sense.
The attack orders are more interesting. The jet(s?) had orders to fire if any of North Korea’s shells actually hit South Korean land. North Korea’s 2010 edition of firing artillery across the border involved the actual shelling of the South Korean island of Yeonpyeong, which ended up killing two South Korean soldiers and two civilians instead of the usual fish. South Korea returned fire toward North Korea’s artillery and scrambled some aircraft before the two sides eventually called it a day.
But in the latest episode, the deployment of jets with SLAM-ER missiles risked a real escalation. There’s absolutely no reason to use an expensive, highly-advanced cruise missile when there are a lot cheaper, easier-to-use, shorter-range missiles for small operations. However, it appears that these guys were prepared to put the smackdown on North Korean military targets. And in the back-and-forth of escalation, killing some generals at a targeted headquarters is a big deal, especially considering the possible presence of other high-ranking officials, right up to the bad haircut man himself, Kim Jong-un.
Who’s behind this more aggressive South Korean posture? President Park Geun-hye, who, when it comes to North Korea, is evidently of the “Not Putting Up With Your Goddamn Shit” school of international relations. President Park is not just South Korea’s first female president or the first female head of state in modern northeast Asia — she is unique among regional leaders in that her personal history is closer Batman’s origin story than any other currently serving head of state.
President Park’s father, Park Chung-hee, was also President of South Korea. The elder President Park ran the country for more than 17 years with an iron fist, using the KCIA (yes, the Korean Central Intelligence Agency) to suppress domestic opposition thoroughly and brutally. After dodging a few assassination attempts, President Park met with an untimely death in 1979 at the hands of the head of the KCIA, Kim Jae-kyu. Nobody knows why the chief spook went postal during dinner. Some say it was a wild, impulsive act, some claim that it was part of a failed coup attempt, and some speculate that he just couldn’t handle it any more.
Her father's assassination ended the tenure of the then 27-year-old Park Geun-hye as de facto first lady of Korea. Park Geun-hye obviously wasn’t married to her father, but she was the oldest female member of the household, which, for the purposes of protocol and diplomacy, made her acting first lady. And how did she become the lady of the house? Through an earlier assassination attempt on her father, of course.
Just five years before her father was killed, a Japanese-born North Korean sympathizer tried to shoot him, but missed — instead hitting the president’s wife, who died hours later. President Park continued his speech as his dying wife was carried off the stage. That just goes to show the kind of stern discipline that’s gruff and foreboding on the outside, and gruff and foreboding on the inside as well.
Another meeting of politics and bloody violence took place in 2006 when a 50-year-old man slashed Park Geun-hye’s face with a box cutter during a campaign stop, leaving a wound more than four inches long. The cut required two hours of surgery and 60 stitches to close.
President Park, for all the benefits of growing up under the cover of influence and power, has earned her diploma from the School of Hard Knocks… and Knives. Inter-Korean relations will continue to be punctuated by explosive exchanges of words and munitions, but North Korea might want to become more circumspect when trying to get a rise out of this administration.
Nobody really knows what will happen when President Park switches over from “Not Putting Up With Your Goddamn Shit” to “Have Had It Up To Here With Your Goddamn Shit,” but it’ll probably involve the South Korean Air Force firing off a load of inbound mess-you-up.