The Korean Peninsula is on the brink of a war. Since early March, North Korea stepped up its rhetoric when South Korean and the US forces began annual military drills that included a rare show of aerial power. Pyongyang now says the region is on the brink of a nuclear war in the wake of UN sanctions imposed for its February nuclear test and a series of joint military drills. The provocation for North Korea was the US move in its continuing effort to deter conflict on the Korean peninsula by sending stealth jets to South Korea to participate in joint drills with South Korea’s military. The top-line F-22 Raptors were deployed from Japan to Osan Air Base in South Korea. They were following in the slipstream of bat-wing shaped B-2 stealth bombers, which dropped dummy bombs on a remote uninhabited South Korean island during an exercise in the last week of March 2013.
What is the purpose of this latest US military move? In March 31, Pyongyang belligerency crossed the threshold when North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and other top officials adopted a declaration calling nuclear weapons “the nation’s life” and “treasure of a unified country”, something they would never trade for anything, even “billions of dollars” worth of aid. The question that begs an answer is how does the F-22s and B-2 bombers figure into this equation?
Firstly, the B-2 stealth bomber’s history of hitting China’s Belgrade embassy in 1999 makes its training mission over South Korea a pointed message to North Korea’s Kim Jung-un. The US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said that Kim’s “provocative actions” and “belligerent tone” have “ratcheted up the danger” and the US understands that reality. The B-2 bomber can fly some 6,500 miles, drop smart bombs, and is nuclear-capable. Though the incident in Belgrade in 1999 was described as an accident, the reality was that China’s People’s Liberation Army forces in the embassy basement were sending out intelligence information to President Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, whose military was committing atrocities. The B-2 bomber has the most precisely targeted munitions in any military arsenal, accurate to strike within two meters. Whether this theory is indeed true or not, Chinese and North Korean governments believed it to be true. Therefore, for that reason, the training run involving the B-2 bombers was a subtle signal to China and North Korea to say that the US would not be deterred and would go after high-value target sites.
Secondly, it is not clear, however, if the US knows enough about Kim’s irrationality, which eventually is provoking North Korea further. The truism is that there are a lot of unknowns and the US cannot afford not to take seriously every provocative, bellicose word and action that Kim Jung-un has taken so far since coming to power. Given those unknowns, the US can ill afford not to be on guard as it has to reassure its allies that the pentagon has their back. Their presence demonstrates the US’ extended deterrence and shows US commitment to South Korea’s defense. Exercises are meant to test the integration of particular forces into a joint fighting enterprise; this shows the US would commit its most expensive jet fighters to a conventional Korean War, if Pyongyang decides to attack. In that sense, the F-22s complement the appearance of the B-2s. The latter are long-range, nuclear-capable bombers based in the US. The message they sent with their dummy bombs was that Washington remains committed to protecting South Korea and Japan with its own nuclear weapons in the face of North Korea’s nuclear development.
Following the deployment of B-2 stealth bombers and F-22 Raptors by the US as an extended deterrent practice, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un went ballistic and ordered to put missile units on stand-by, with the object to hit targets in US mainland and American bases in South Korea and the Pacific. The inert trainer bombs were dropped on targets only 200 km away from the 38th parallel Line in the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) in Panmunjom that divides the Korean peninsula. The two stealth bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons were taking part in the on-going US-South Korean drill code-named Foal Eagle.
On March 11, South Korea and the US began annual large-scale military exercises, involving 10,000 South Korean and 3,500 US troops. US officials said the exercise should serve “to demonstrate very clearly the resolve of the United States to deter against aggression on the Korean Peninsula”. Prior to the exercise, Pyongyang threatened the US with a preemptive nuclear strike amid warnings that it plans to terminate the Korean War Armistice Agreement. It warned of retaliatory countermeasures if the US and South Korea went ahead with the drills.
Response from Pyongyang
Tensions between the two Koreas have unprecedentedly heightened for the first time in the past decade. Pyongyang assessed the drill as a gross provocation and accused the US for preparation for launching attacks on North Korea. South Korean sources noticed increased activity at North Korea’s medium-range and long-range missile sites.
North Korea declared that it entered into a “state of war” with South Korea, saying that all issues between the neighbouring countries will be handled in accordance with a wartime protocol. The state-run Korean Central News Agency said, “the long-standing situation of the Korean peninsula being neither at peace nor at war is finally over”. Both the Koreas remain technically at war since no peace treaty was signed following the Korean War of 1950-53. The DMZ is the most heavily armed border in the world.
The escalation of Pyongyang’s bellicose rhetoric and a direct response to the US nuclear-capable B-2 bombers joining the military drills elevated the threat to a new threshold. Pyongyang sees the US nuclear firepower as a direct threat to its existence and saw the annual drills as preparation for invasion. It uses the US nuclear arsenal as a justification for its own push for nuclear-tipped missiles that can strike the US mainland, South Korea, Guam and Hawaii.
Notwithstanding the bellicose rhetoric, a full-blown North Korean attack is unlikely. A more localized conflict, such as a naval skirmish in disputed Yellow Sea waters could be a possibility. Also, there is no evidence that Pyongyang’s missiles can hit the US mainland but its short- and mid-range missiles could cause considerable damage to Seoul, which is a short drive from the DMZ. Analysts outside North Korea have seen no proof that North Korean scientists have yet mastered the technology needed to build a nuclear warhead small enough to mount on a missile.
Is war inevitable?
All the stakeholders do realise that a war will be very expensive and bloody. A war would not be to any party’s interest and therefore must be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, the situation which is pretty volatile at the moment could lead to horrible disaster unless restraint is exercised. When forces from both sides are on combat readiness, an accidental incident might provoke a conflict. This makes the situation very volatile and therefore dangerous. Heightened tension increases chances that handling an unforeseen situation could be difficult. Such provocations from either side must stop and negotiations commence forthwith.
Unfortunately, neither side is showing signs to back out. The US refuses to admit that flights of its stealth bombers provoked Pyongyang to put its missile units on stand-by. US Defence Secretary Jack Hegel reiterated that the US will seriously respond to North Korean provocations and defend its allies – Japan and South Korea – but has not clarified what that response would be. The US has decided that USS Fitzgerald, positioned next to North Korea, will serve to shoot down any missiles launched from the country. The vessel was initially supposed to return to base in Japan following the joint exercise with the South. For the US, the re-positioning of the USS Fitzgerald was a “prudent move” aimed at providing “greater missile defence options” should that become necessary.
South Korea’s response
There are differing interpretations to Pyongyang’s announcement of alleged war against South Korea. It is alleged that media reports are based on wrong translation by western information agencies. It is reported that the original text of Pyongyang’s declaration reads that in case of the enemy’s provocations, the republic would act according to martial law. It is argued, therefore, that Seoul’s initial placid response was that no war had been announced. South Korea did not read any meaning to its neighbour’s declaration as it saw as the continuation of the series of belligerent outbursts of recent months.
This argument is based on the premise that North Korea reacted when the US deployed a B-52 bomber capable of carrying nuclear war-heads approaching North Korea while remaining in South Korean air space, and imitated the release of a nuclear bomb. When the US was not satisfied with that and sent two B-2 bombers on March 28 capable of carrying 16 nuclear war-heads from a base in Missouri, 20,000 km from the Korean peninsula, and simulated a bombing at a South Korean testing site, Pyongyang felt provoked and feared a US preparation for an invasion.
However, unlike South Korea, the US took the threats from Pyongyang seriously. Though the US knew that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, in the capacity of the supreme commander, signed the plan of the technical training of strategic missile troops for delivering blows on military based in the US continental areas, the Pacific coast as well as in South Korea in case of the enemy’s provocation, it was absolutely clear that North Korean missiles were incapable of reaching US military bases in the Pacific. Moreover, Pyongyang has no suicidal ideas to attack any country.
Emboldened by the support from the US, now South Korea’s new President Park Geun-hye promised a strong military response and that South Korea will strike hard after Pyongyang announced that the two countries were now in a state of war. Park, a conservative who had advocated cautious engagement with the North during her election campaign, has been compelled to take a more hard-line posture after assuming office in February 2013. Park warned that the country’s military has been ordered to strike back without waiting for permission from Seoul in the event of any attack from the North.
Future of Kaesong Industrial Complex
Here, two issues are important and worth-examining: the future of the inter-Korean only joint venture – Kaesong Industrial Complex – and role of China to de-escalate tensions. The industrial plant operating in North Korea, just north of the DMZ, with South Korean know-how and capital, and North Korean labour is an important source of hard currency for the impoverished North Korean regime. The impoverished state has kept the joint industrial zone functional.
Fifty-three thousand North Korea labourers are employed there by more than 100 South Korean companies. The complex annually generates an estimated $1 billion in exports to the South from the impoverished and isolated North. According to Senior economic researcher Cho Bong-hyun at the Industrial Bank of Korea, if the 700 managers from the South who go there daily through Korea’s heavily armed border are blocked from entering, that would be an ominous signal from the North. Anxiety is high among the South Korean company owners. Some of them have started to leave, while workers are worried about the complex shutting down. But all are hoping inter-Korean relations will stabilize for the proper operation of the unique venture.
The project is a source of hard currency. If Pyongyang goes beyond words and shuts down the plant, it would only damage its own weak finances. In 2012, the plant produced $470 million worth of goods, which would be huge loss for Pyongyang if the plant is closed. Amidst massive display of sabre-rattling, if Pyongyang executes its threat to target the industrial park, this would be suicidal as it would severely hurt its own economic interests. Such a decision is unlikely to be taken even this time as Pyongyang has issued such threats in the past without implementing them. In the interest of inter-Korean cooperation, the industrial plant must be secured.
Role of China
Though most observers still believe this will remain a rhetorical rather than a physical battle, the volatility of the situation contains possibility of a slight miscalculation turning into a rapid escalation. This makes the great powers worry. Both China and Russia have appealed all sides to cooperate to prevent the situation worsening. While China’s Foreign Ministry has called for restraint, Russia was more explicit, with its foreign minister Sergey V. Lavrov, saying that he is concerned about the situation that could “get out of control”, which could descend into the spiral of a vicious cycle. China’s role in restraining Pyongyang remains crucial.
Though China calls for restraint, it is unlikely to abandon its ally in the event of a conflict breaking out. China will be immediately drawn into the conflict, which means worsening relations with the US. China is no less a bully than North Korea, with its aggressive posture in many regional hotspots. Its long term goal is to emerge the No. 1 power in the world, beating the US into second place. China has already started mobilizing military forces around the Korean peninsula on the border with the North. The People’s Liberation Army is now at ‘Level One’ readiness, its highest.
Chinese forces, including tanks and armoured personnel carriers, are moving around the city of Ji’an and near the Yalu River, which splits China and North Korea. China has also been conducting live-firing naval exercises in the Yellow Sea, which is viewed as open support for North Korea. China and North Korea have maintained a long-standing defense treaty under which Beijing is to come to Pyongyang’s aid in the event of an attack. The relationship between the countries is often referred to as being “as close as lips and teeth”. There is also a view in some circle in China that it is displeased with Pyongyang’s latest aggressive relationship with Seoul and Washington and therefore tolerates US presence in the region which helps restrain the unpredictable Kim Jong-un to some extent. This, it is argued, is the real reason Beijing has not been strong in its criticism of the amassing of US forces in the region. However, this argument is weak as Beijing’s strategic considerations will weigh much heavily in defining the country’s neighbourhood policy, in which North Korea will remain a crucial element. Another reason for Beijing to continue backing Pyongyang could be the fear of a collapse of order in North Korea, which would lead to a large-scale refugee flow into China.
Why is Pyongyang obsessed with Nuclear?
The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un claimed that his country had adopted a new strategy of carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously. Kim has gone on record in saying that North Korea will develop a “self-reliant nuclear power industry” and “light water reactor” to ease the strain on the country’s electricity supply. Speaking at a plenary meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea, Kim declared: “The DPRK’s nuclear armed forces represent the nation’s life, which can never be abandoned as long as the imperialists and nuclear threats exist on earth”. He further said the new strategy was “a strategic line to be always held fast to,” not a temporary countermeasure for coping with the rapidly changing situation”. Pyongyang has taken a concerted decision to develop a self-reliant nuclear power industry and dynamically promote a light water reactor to actively contribute to easing the strain on the electricity problem of the country.
Besides, North Korea wants to accelerate the development of space science and technology and more advanced satellites, including communications satellites. As per plans, North Korea’s possession of nukes should be fixed by law and the nuclear armed forces should be expanded and beefed up qualitatively and quantitatively until the denuclearization of the world is realized. While Pyongyang claims to be a responsible nuclear weapons state, it resolves to make positive efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation, ensure peace and security in Asia and the world at large, and realize denuclearization of the whole world. This is just building castle in the air as the world knows about its dubious links with Pakistan, Iran and suspected links with Myanmar in nuclear proliferation activities.
North Korea has been depicted as an irrational provocateur in the escalation of threats and military maneuvers over the Korean peninsula. Its belligerent rhetoric is seen as proof of its intension to wage war. Can the US’ North Korean policy be seen as President Obama’s “Asian pivot” strategy, which started with his visits to Myanmar, Thailand, and Cambodia in November 2012, where he tried unsuccessfully to establish US military presence around the South China Sea over the issue of disputed territories?
Since North Korea’s successful rocket launch in December 2012 and the underground nuclear test in February 2013 threats, rhetoric and military provocations have rapidly escalated. This was followed by UN-approved sanctions on Pyongyang in March 2013 and it was then North Korea retaliated by stating that it has the right to stage a pre-emptive strike on the US. From the North Korean perspective, these threats from the US, which almost bombed the North out of existence during the 1950 Korean War, cannot be taken lightly. North Korea remembers that more than 5 million lives were lost during the conflict when the war started under the pretext of military exercises, like the one underway at present. For the North, the military incursions by the US and South Korea is a real possibility and therefore the recent military movements are perceived as a real threat to the security of the country. North Korea’s perception of this threat stems from history and could be legitimate.
The situation is getting rapidly honeycombed with tensions escalating as everyday passes. The current “game” scenario is running risk of getting messy as there is no immediate forum for moderation acceptable to both sides that can help decrease tension. Both China and Russia plead only for restraint so that the situation does not spiral into a full blown up war. Both tacitly blame the US for unnecessarily provoking North Korea. In the past during the Clinton Administration, the US displayed wisdom and restraint when military exercises were cancelled to appease Pyongyang’s concern. The Obama administration has not shown such gesture this time.
What are then Obama administration’s game plans? Is it based on a misunderstanding of the consequences or whether it is deliberate? One concern could be to check China and the Korean escalation could be the right pretext to build up its military presence in East Asia in consonance with its Asia’s ‘pivot’ policy. Other fallouts could be South Korea might opt for a military path. Even public opinion in South Korea is rising for the country going nuclear to meet the challenge for the North. In Japan with a nationalist Prime Minister in Abe, Japan may find a convenient ground to build up opinion to revisit the nuclear option by amending the Constitution as well as build up its military profile. The state-funded National Institute of Defense Studies in its East Asia Review 2013 has raised alarm about China’s assertiveness and troublesome relationships with its neighbours.
Finally, what ultimately is likely to unfold once the joint US-South Korean military drills are over in May? There will be automatic de-escalation of tensions. Pyongyang will also soon get busy with birthday celebrations for (late founder of North Korea) Kim Il-sung, after which temperature will gradually cool and return to the status quo of no war and no unification. Beijing may not abandon its long-term ally but its obliging at the UN Security Council in passing latest round of sanctions against North Korea in March following its third nuclear test the previous month may be seen as Beijing’s growing impatience. One only hopes that sober counsel prevails no major crisis erupts in the Korean peninsula.
About the author: Rajaram Panda
Dr. Rajaram Panda, a leading expert from India on East Asia with focus on Japan and the Koreas, was formerly Senior Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, and is currently Visiting Faculty at the Centre for Japanese, Korean and Northeast Asian Studies, School of Language, Literature & Culture Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.
E-mail: [email protected]