The UK Times suggests that the apparent North Korean attack on the South Korean naval ship on March 26 may have been an attempt to provoke war with South Korea. Specifically:
In some ways, a limited war might be exactly what the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, is hoping for. After decades of economic decline and famine in the 1990s, which killed as many as a few million people, his economy is in chronic decline. A military adventure, against the routinely demonised “imperialist” US and its South Korean “lackeys” could serve as a welcome and unifying distraction.
This is what political scientists call a diversionary or scapegoat war. Such a war enables a leader facing domestic troubles to provoke a rally around the flag effect and raise flagging (pun intended) support.
Now assuming that the incident was the product of centralized decision making rather than an unintended one ordered lower down the food chain (something I discussed earlier here), Kim Jong Il may simply be engaging in a tit-for-tat retaliatory strike for an earlier skirmish, something the Times itself suggests. And while such a diversionary war would likely distract at home and provide some temporary relief from any internal pressure, is the “Supreme Leader” really so risk acceptant as to start something that could spiral into a bigger war that could see his downfall?
My guess is that the incident was not intended to start a diversionary war but was either retaliation or another in a long history of provocative displays of force by the North Koreans. Then again, Kim Jong Il may be assuming – perhaps correctly given South Korea’s current lack of desire for a major war on the peninsula – that any South Korean response is likely to be quite limited and can provide some helpful distraction. Of course, this is all premised on the notion that we are talking about a substantively (or even procedurally) rational, unitary actor – something that might be a stretch in this case.