Like other years, tensions again returned to the Korean peninsula as South Korea and the United States started conducting their annual joint military exercises with North Korea warning of “all-out military action” unless Seoul cancels the plans and halts its “anti-Pyongyang” broadcasts along their joint border. Such reactions by Pyongyang to the US-South Korea joint annual military exercises have become almost an annual ritual, with no possible serious consequences. Even when the joint exercises are underway, Pyongyang routinely criticises this as a rehearsal for war, without real fear of escalation on a large scale.
The joint South Korea-US Ulchi-Freedom Guardian (UFG) military exercise is held annually. This year, it began on 17 August and to conclude on 28 August. Both South Korea and the United States have made it amply clear, as in the past, that this exercise is entirely defensive in nature but North Korea considers it as provocative. It is not uncommon for tensions on the peninsula to rise during such exercises.
When the United Nations Command informed Pyongyang of the plan through loudspeaker at Panmunjom, the truce village inside the demilitarised zone (DMZ), Pyongyang threatened to take “the strongest military counteraction”. A spokesman of the National Defense Commission as reported by North Korea’s Central News Agency observed: “The DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) is the invincible power equipped with both the latest offensive and defensive means unknown to the world, including nuclear deterrence”.
The anti-country broadcasts between the two countries began following a land mine explosion inside the DMZ in which two South Korean soldiers were severely injured. Pyongyang dismissed Seoul’s charge that it had planted the devices as “absurd”, saying that if its military wanted a provocation for a military purpose, it would have used its mighty firepower instead of fielding with three land mines. In turn, Pyongyang demanded that Seoul should remove all means of “psychological warfare” or face “all-out military action”.
The latest saber-rattling coincided with reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un ordered the execution of the country’s vice premier Choe Yong-gon in May 2015 for expressing “discomfort” over Kim’s forestation policy. Earlier Kim had executed his defense minister Hyon Yong-chol by anti-aircraft fire for disloyalty and showing disrespect to him. Amidst heightening of inter-Korean tensions, Pyongyang turned back its clock by 30 minutes in order to rid itself of the legacy of Japan’s 1910-45 colonial rule of Korea. South Korea feared that the time change that went into effect on the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II could complicate inter-Korean affairs, particularly movements in and out of the joint industrial complex in North Korea’s border city of Kaesong as well as create confusion in messages exchanged between their respective militaries.
Does all or some of Kim Jong-un’s recent actions such as exchange of artillery fire in a spat over propaganda-spewing loudspeakers, including the latest mobilisation of forces on the country’s heavily armed border with South Korea, mean that the North Korean leader is itching for a war? At an emergency meeting of his Central Military Commission, Kim ordered his soldiers to enter a “fully armed state of war” and be fully ready for any military operations. He ordered soldiers to be “fully battle ready” and placed the area in a “semi state of war”.
It may be remembered that both the Koreas have been technically at war since the Korean War in the 1950s, which ended in an armistice, not a formal peace deal. Pyongyang is notorious for issuing bellicose statements whenever there is diplomatic strife. South Korea is immune at such reactions from North. But this time, the rhetoric is fiercer and therefore a bit serious. For example, as a build-up to the present fear of escalation to a dangerous level, when South Korean activists sent propaganda leaflet-bearing balloons across the border on 14 August, North Korea threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire”.
North Korea’s action of firing a projectile at a South Korean loudspeaker broadcasting anti-Pyongyang messages over the border, a no-man’s land that has divided the two countries since 1953, met with sharp South Korean reaction which retaliated by firing dozens of 155-millimeter artillery shells at the source of the attack. This prompted the North to warn Seoul that it would take “military action” if the South does not halt such actions. The fear of escalation looked real when South Korea ordered evacuations in villages of Hwangsan-li and Sanmgot-li in Yeoncheon County close to the border. The idea was to minimise the risk of civilian casualties if the event had escalated and resulted in further exchange of fire.
The government put its military on top alert. It raised its military alertness level to Jindogae-1, indicating immediate danger, imminent attack or impending invasion. The government vowed to sternly deal with any North Koreans provocations. While people gathered in Seoul to protest North Korea’s shelling, Pyongyang upped the ante when vans equipped with loudspeakers rolled down the streets broadcasting the news that the country was in a “semi-state of war”.
Amidst accusations and counter-accusations from either side, or fear of escalation increasing by the day, the on-going South Korea-United States joint military exercises evoked strong protests from Pyongyang. North Korea has always called the annual drills a rehearsal for an invasion. To assuage Pyongyang’s misgivings, the exercises involving 30,000 US and 50,000 South Korean troops were suspended temporarily but resumed in a matter of hours. As an ally nation, the US is committed to defend and protect South Korea from external threats. Besides this, the US has larger interests and geo-strategic considerations in the region to maintain peace and stability. North Korea has remained a potential destabilising factor since the end of World War II. Its constant belligerence and nuclear weapons programs remain a matter for worry for the United States and the rest of Asia. Pyongyang should realise that the United States is an ally of the South and would not hesitate to intervene militarily in a massive way should security situation deteriorates critically because of the former’s constant saber-rattling. Unless Pyongyang changes course, it would be only working towards its own annihilation. Its present pursuance of belligerent policies is self-destructive and it would be in North Korea’s interests that it abjures such unreasonable policies and sees reason for a peaceful future. The world would be willing to help and embrace North Korea into its fold if the latter is willing.
According to Professor John Delury of Seoul’s Yonsei University, Kim’s order to declare the country remaining in a semi-state of war is strange because, according to him, “North Korea lives in a sort of perpetual quasi-state of war”. If the current tensions are not arrested from mounting to unmanageable level, one could see again a return of 2013 situation when North Korea cut a military hotline between the countries and temporarily closed the jointly administered industrial complex in Kaesong. In this game of chicken, one side or the other ought to back down. The big question is which side takes the first move as neither would be seen as a loser? Can one expect then some sort of face-saving subterfuge? That too seems unlikely. That leaves analysts to explore other possible options to recommend, if feasible.
Irrespective of from which side one sees, the truism is that any escalation of tensions between the two siblings is a risk. South Korea is likely to react more sharply, unlike the kind of restraint it showed in the two North Korean attacks in 2010 that killed 50 South Koreans, in any future North Korean attack. It could trigger strikes by South Korea three times as large. Pyongyang must not underestimate possible South Korean response to any of its misguided future adventure. In any escalation of conflict, the 28,500 US marines deployed in South Korea to deter any potential aggression from North Korea would be immediately drawn into the conflict.
As said, the exchange of fire and North Korean provocation are unlikely to be allowed to escalate into full-blown war. These incidents are symptomatic of the high tensions that both Koreas are now used to live with. But outcomes to past incidents offer hope that both would be effectively equipped with the right diplomatic skills to handle such incidents without wider conflict. Neither side desires a resumption of open war nor escalations and therefore expected to remain effectively limited.
Yet, any exchange of fire or provocation involving direct military contact between the two Koreas has the potential for escalation into a wider conflict, whether or not this is the intended outcome. The DMZ area is the most vulnerable where escalation could occur. This is not to discount the other vulnerable zone, various islands near the Northern Limit Line, the de facto inter-Korean maritime border in the Yellow Sea, where military skirmishes have been more frequent. While scope for escalation at sea and on islands could be limited as the combatants have little direct contact and military forces are relatively isolated from opposing forces, in contrast, units at the DMZ are often in visual contact with both allies and enemies. Moreover, forces from either side are concentrated in the DMZ area and always in a high level of alertness. This means an incident could inadvertently result in a chain reaction with scope for escalation at a bigger scale.
Yet, neither side would benefit from an open conflict though occasional military provocation could remain unpreventable. At the appropriate time, both sides are expected to work to limit escalation. Fear, suspicions, desire to live in peace together are characteristics that cloud inter-Korean relations. Escalations do occur and both sides might have intentionally fired at times to provoke the other side but not actually with the intension to inflict casualties. That seems to be the deeper truth. Yet, either side ought to exercise extreme restraint and not to allow an incident to escalate into open conflict. That would require matured leadership, strict discipline, strong command and control, and clear rules of engagement in the military sides on both sides. Are these misplaced high-placed optimisms negating the ground realities of fear, suspicions and acrimony that continue to cloud inter-Korean relations? One would hope that is not the case. After all peace and harmony are ideal for all, both Koreas and their peoples included.