North Korea’s warning of a “vicious” showdown with the US following the announcement of the annual joint military drill with South Korea brings the Northeast Asia into the precipice of a major conflagration. Pyongyang has announced that the US has effectively declared war and ‘crossed the red line’ and vowed to respond massively with all its resources in possession without any fear of its own annihilation.
With China toughening stance on the South China Sea by rejecting the international tribunal’s ruling as a scrap of paper, China and Russia joining hands in conducting military exercises, Donald Trump’s impending triumph to the US presidency and his avowed policy of reviewing US commitment to its allies on the security policy, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo steering the country’s course into a militaristic direction (as perceived) by striving to amend Article 9 of the Constitution after securing a majority in the Upper House in the recent elections – all these are recipe for a possible disaster to happen. A trigger would be enough to put the world into flame with devastating consequences. With its unpredictability, North Korea is the most feared to take the world towards this feared precipice. Some analysts have started talking if the world is heading towards World War III. Are we ready for this? This essay shall try to analyse some of these disturbing trends that are fast developing.
Joint Military drills
As per the security arrangement between the US and South Korea, both these countries conduct joint military exercises south of the Demilitarised Zone dividing the two Koreas. No sooner than the announcement to hold the annual joint military exercise was made, Pyongyang went bellicose and its top diplomat for US affairs warned of a “vicious” showdown and that North Korea is ready for war. The truism is that the US has been conducting exercises with South Korea and many other militaries of the region for decades and this has provided stability since World War II. North Korea, however, does not see that way and feels that the joint military exercise is the preparation for eventual invasion of North Korea, which is why it responds with tough talks and threats of retaliation in a belligerent manner. What could then be the implication of such rhetoric?
On the joint military exercises, the US has repeatedly clarified that these are “defense-oriented” and are carried out regularly and openly for roughly 40 years and designed to maintain stability on the Korean peninsula. This commitment might come under review if Trump becomes the next US President.
Pyongyang alleges that it was the US which first developed and also used nuclear weapons against humankind. Han Song-Ryol, director-general of the US affairs department at the North Foreign Ministry alleges that it was the US who first developed missiles and rockets that were to deliver nuclear warheads and conventional weapons warheads and also used it. Pyongyang’s objections are that the recent joint military exercises were unprecedented in scale in which the US deployed the USS Mississippi and USS Ohio nuclear-powered submarines to South Korean ports, deployed the B-52 strategic bomber around South Korea and now announced the deployment of the most advanced missile defense system, known as the THAAD.
It may be recalled that in 2015, the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercises involved 30,000 American and 50,000 South Korean troops. This too had escalated tensions and rhetoric but no major incident happened, though land mine explosions had maimed two South Korean soldiers. Pyongyang, therefore, justifies its possession of nuclear weapons as a means of deterrence and to neutralise nuclear blackmail by the US.
Despite the threat from Pyongyang that it is ready for war, the US Army Secretary Eric Fanning said the annual war games shall continue as planned. Fanning who was in Malaysia as part of a regional tour declared “these exercises contribute to stability, they don’t compete with stability”. He said the exercises are not designed or intended to start a war with North Korea. Pyongyang does not buy this argument.
North Korea’s Threat to Counter THAAD
Besides the announcement to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system in South Korea to counter threats from North Korea which also angered China and the joint military drills in August, Pyongyang is also irked when the US put North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on its list of sanctioned individuals. This led Han to observe that the US “crossed the red line” and effectively declared war. Han further charged the US that the US marines have now been trained for invading Pyongyang aimed at killing North’s top leadership. Han also declared that its final official means of communications with Washington – known as the New York channel – shall be cut off and everything between the two countries shall now be dealt with under “war law”.
Pyongyang takes umbrage that the US has put the North Korean leader in a list of 11 sanctioned individuals for alleged human rights abuses, including harsh treatment to all kinds of political dissent. According to the US, the list is designed to be a type of deterrent to those who are on the list. Pyongyang dismisses such allegations, saying that these are fabricated by few disgruntled defectors, and criticises in return that the human rights record of the US is highly questionable.
The question that begs an answer is, how serious is the threat issued by Han? North Korea’s top diplomat says if the US and South Korea maintain their plan of holding the joint military exercises, tensions could erupt and that could plunge the divided country into war. Does that mean World War III is in the horizon as once there is a trigger the response could be uncontrollable, drawing other powers such as China, Japan and Russia also into the conflict. Despite such hyperbole and sabre rattling, Kim Jong-un is unlikely to pull the trigger on his claims that the US has declared war on North Korea because he is surely aware that his country shall be extinct from the world map if war really breaks out.
The US is unlikely to reduce its commitment and presence in the region. Even if Trump becomes the President, he shall find it too difficult to overlook the strategic compulsions for enacting a dramatic overhaul of policy for the Asia-Pacific region.
Militarisation of space?
In the meantime, Japan which comes within range of the North Korean missiles and threats is gearing up to defend itself if the situation so warrants. Japan is upgrading its Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) land-to-air missile defence system needed to intercept North Korean ballistic missiles. This move is in response to the rising geopolitical tensions in the region and represents the most significant upgrade to Japan’s missile defence system in a decade and is part of an increase in military spending in the region. The upgraded PAC-3 doubling its range from its current to around 30 km should be capable of countering the Musudan, North Korea’s intermediate-range ballistic missile. Japan is also considering to purchase the advanced THAAD, which the US has decided to deploy in South Korea.
Even South Korea’s military operates the older PAC-2 system and therefore has plans to upgrade/replace with the PAC-3 system by 2018. Besides deploying the THAAD, the US forces based in South Korea are planning their PAC-3 batteries covering Seoul.
It transpires, therefore, countries in the region are gearing up to face for an impending showdown. What it means is that the region is becoming rapidly militarised. Besides the North Korean nuclear and missile threats, Japan and China have the unresolved territorial disputes in the East China Sea. China also has disputes with several Southeast Asian nations in the South China Sea. It not only rejected the international tribunal’s ruling as a scrap of paper, it scored a diplomatic victory by cajoling Cambodia not to agree with other AEAN members to mention China and the South China Sea in the joint statement during the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting last month in the Laos capital. Its People’s Liberation Army is proud to say it is ready to give the opponents a “bloody nose like Deng Xiaoping did to Vietnam in 1979” when China punished Hanoi for forcing Beijing’s ally the Khmer Rouge from power in Cambodia. In order to consolidate its claims over the South China Sea, China is swiftly modernising its armed forces in part to counter what it sees as a strategy of containment in the US’ Asian ‘pivot’.
There was recent news that suggests that China is busy militarising the space. In a rare disclosure it announced successfully testing anti-ballistic missile system following THAAD deployment announcement by the US in South Korea. There are clearly strategic and political objectives behind such a move. The purported four consecutive successful tests of a “ground-based midcourse defence” (GMD) system at the Korla Missile Test Complex in Xinjiang conducted two weeks before the US announcement of THAAD deployment in South Korea suggests that China was already pre-empting the US move and getting prepared beforehand how to counter it. No wonder, this was revealed only after the US announcement. GMD systems plot, target and destroy ballistic missiles in space. China wanted to demonstrate that it was ready for basic deployment in case war breaks out. It may be mentioned, China is only the second country after the US to have such technology. Though China has said that the system is not intended to target any specific country and that it would not affect global strategic stability, one can see duplicity in the Chinese strategy when China claims not to ever “swallow insults and submit to humiliation when facing provocations”, referring to the history of when it fought the US-led coalition in the Korean War in the 1950s.
It has accused the US that by announcing to deploy THAAD in South Korea, it has damaged mutual trust and increased regional tensions. It has warned South Korea that by serving the US “Asia re-balance” strategy by agreeing to THAAD deployment, it has invited a wolf into the house. These developments suggest that the two giants – the US and China – are gathering pace in a space arms race. North Korea seems to have provided the base and others are building on this.
Any Way Out?
Viewed from all angles, it transpires that the situation in the Asia Pacific, more particularly in the Northeast Asian theatre, is extremely volatile. No country seems is ready to back down; on the contrary each have toughened their positions. That makes diplomacy difficult. It is a huge challenge to the leadership in all these countries which are stakeholders to maintain peace and stability in the region to raise their diplomatic skills to initiate dialogue and work out a way out so that everyone’s interests are protected, and thereby arrest the world from drifting towards an apocalypse.