The security situation in Northeast Asia is again back on focus as the US and South Korea kicked off their annual military exercises on 22 August with retaliation warning coming from Pyongyang almost immediately. This has added to the tensions on the peninsula already heightened by the defection of a Pyongyang diplomat. The more North Korea is pushed to the wall, the more belligerent it becomes. It has become increasingly isolated after it conducted the fourth nuclear test in January 2016 and launched long-range rocket in the following month, which brought tightened UN Security Council sanctions. Remaining undeterred, Pyongyang defied with several ballistic missile launches. The annual US-South Korea drill again provoked Pyongyang to fire submarine-launched ballistic missile, this time towards Japan.
About 25,000 US troops joined in the Ulchi Freedom Guardian exercise, which runs until 2 September. As per procedure, the US-led UN Command Military Armistice Commission notified the North Korean army that exercises were “non-provocative” in nature. Pyongyang does not buy this explanation and calls the exercises as preparations for invasion. This time, Pyongyang threatened a pre-emptive retaliatory nuclear strike. Though the US and South Korea are used to hear such rhetoric and frequent threats without real fear of escalation, they cannot take a chance to loosen vigilance in case the threats are implemented.
The threats frequently issued by the chubby tyrant Kim Jong-un cannot be taken lightly. When South Korea announced that North Korea’s deputy ambassador in London Thae Yong Ho had defected to South Korea, it was an embarrassing blow for Kim Jong-un to swallow. This was followed by return of 12 waitresses from a North Korean restaurant in China. North Korea’s Red Cross sent a letter to its South Korean counterpart for the women to be sent back, accusing that they were kidnapped by the South, which South Korea denied. Adding fuel to fire, South Korean President Park Geun-hye said the defection showed cracks in the Kim regime, further provoking the dictator. Kim Jong-un is so paranoid about the regime survival that even he threatened the athletes who returned from Rio without medals to be sent to coal mines as punishment for not making enough efforts to showcase North Korea in the world’s big stage. Such is the sense of insecurity Kim suffers that any untoward incident from him could never be ruled out.
Despite Pyongyang’s backlash, the US and South Korea went ahead on their annual drills. But this year’s forces numbered 25,000, less than last year’s figure of 30,000, but the Korean side sent 50,000 forces, the same number like previous year. This year’s joint UFG drill means both the US and South Korea apply Operation Plan 5015, a wartime joint defence scenario signed in June 2015 between the two countries to pre-emptively destroy north Korea’s nuclear and missile bases in times of military conflicts.
Opposition to THAAD
After the suspension of all channels of communication following nuclear and missile tests by North Korea, the decision of the US and South Korea in July 2016 to deploy one Terminal High Altitude Air Defence (THAAD) battery in South Korean soil by 2017-end further complicated the security situation in the region as both Pyongyang and China voiced strong opposition to it. Even Russia expressed opposition. The basis of their opposition was that THAAD’s X-band radar can snoop on Chinese and Russian territories. North Korea always viewed the joint military drills such as “Key Resolve”, “Foal Eagle” and now “UFG” claimed to be of defensive nature, re designed for northward invasion.
Though South Korea’s relations with China had warmed during President Park, the THAAD deployment seemed to have ruined this warmth. This deeply divided rift sharply came into focus when the foreign ministers of both the countries – Yun Byung-se of Korea and Wang Yi of China – met on 24 August. China’s main opposition to THAAD deployment is because of concerns that the system’s radar coverage may reach into inland China. Though Yun took pain to explain that no single issue should undermine the development of bilateral relations and that THAAD was simply a response against possible missile attacks by North Korea, and will not be aimed at China, Wang seemed to have been unconvinced. Though Wang subsequently said that efforts should continue to find a solution that is acceptable to both sides, he warned at the same time that THAAD deployment could harm bilateral ties. Chinese media too lambasted and accused South Korea of provoking North Korea to launch a string of missile launches by announcing to deploy THAAD. As expected, Seoul rebutted such claims.
Earlier, China’s foreign ministry issued a statement which said: “China is very unsatisfied and resolutely opposes” the move. It further said: “The missile system is unhelpful in realizing the goal of denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, is no good for the stabilization of the peninsula, runs counter to the effort of various parties’ negotiations, and will severely damage the safety of China and nearby countries and the regional strategic balance.” The ministry urged Washington and Seoul to reconsider and to refrain from actions that “complicate the regional situation” and “harm China’s strategic and security interests.” China’s ambassador to South Korea even went further and warned that system could undo recent progress in relations between Beijing and Seoul and “create a vicious cycle of Cold War-style confrontations and an arms race.”
Seoul fears that the Chinese response to THAAD could spill over into the economic domain, damaging its economic interests. China is South Korea’s largest trading partner. If Chinese response to censor of South Korean pop culture in TV channels is any indication, worry of South Korean manufacturers to get approval to operate in China could be legitimate. Pyongyang should be rejoicing at this turn of events and may feel the winner.
Pyongyang blasted the drills as “an unpardonable criminal act” and the US in cooperation with South Korea is pushing the peninsula to the brink of a war by introducing nuclear strategic bombers, THAAD and other strategic assets into the peninsula and its vicinity. It also accused the US of engineering a US-Japan-South Korea triangular military alliance to maintain military hegemony in the region.
China seems to be more concerned that the US will be in a position to track Chinese missiles and therefore more to the proclaimed objective to intercept North Korean missiles. The US has deployed the system in Hawaii, Guam and elsewhere already and therefore fears that the US shall have greater strategic presence in the region, which makes China uncomfortable. The US, therefore, argues that if China feels so much at unease at the THAAD deployment, it should prevail upon Pyongyang to halt its missile activities. Though the US, Japan and South Korea won China’s support at the UN for tighter sanctions on North Korea after the latter conducted the fourth nuclear test in January and then launched long-range rocket in February, the THAAD deployment decision could make China soften its approach towards North Korea. The THAAD deployment decision could as well drive Beijing to change its policy towards Pyongyang and President Xi Jinping may as well use the opportunity to increase his influence more effectively in North Korea.
Opinion in South Korea is divided on the issue of THAAD deployment. While the people of the site chosen for THAAD’s location are opposed on the ground of environmental damage, political parties are also divided. South Korea’s main opposition party, the liberal Minjoo Party did not oppose to the THAAD deployment but registered its protest on the ground that the decision was “rushed”, without much deliberations in parliament and with the public and therefore termed the decision of the government as “regrettable”. The left-wing Justice Party opposed the government’s decision and called it “truly outrageous”. The party was worried that the decision to deploy THAAD would antagonise both China and Russia and add to heightening tensions in East Asia.
Firing of new missiles
As a reaction to the THAAD deployment decision and military drills that started on 22 August, and in a show of demonstrating technological capability North Korea fired a submarine-launched missile on 24 August that flew about 500 km towards Japan. The idea of firing a missile from a submarine was to show that North Korea can evade a new anti-missile system planned by the US for South Korea and therefore pose a threat even if its land-based arsenal was destroyed. The projectile reached Japan’s air defence identification zone (ADIZ) for the first time, an area of control designated by countries to help maintain air security. Since the missile was fired at a high angle, it showed an indication that its full range would be 1,000 km at an ordinary trajectory. Experts opined that Pyongyang has made advance in its submarine-launched ballistic missile technology. It is more about prestige and status for North Korea than anything else and if it has really achieved a military breakthrough, it would have reason to boast as this is a status only six countries including the US, Russia and China enjoy.
There is no doubt that alongside nuclear weaponisation, North Korea is making advance in military modernisation as well. The extent of its modernisation, however, is not verifiable. South Korea believes that North Korea is in possession of a fleet of more than 70 ageing, limited range submarines, a mix of Chinese, Russian and locally made boats. Its next ambition will certainly be to acquire a fleet of submarines large and quiet enough and with a longer range. The ultimate goal is to arm SLBMs with miniaturised nuclear warheads. This view is expressed here on the assumption that Pyongyang’s claim to have miniaturised a nuclear warhead to fit on a ballistic missile is still debatable.
So, when North Korea claimed its submarine-launched missile test as “the greatest success”, an advance to its nuclear strike capability, the UN had no option than to issue a statement condemning the launch. Kim has urged the scientists to work towards mounting nuclear warheads on all types of ballistic missiles so that North Korea will be in a position to deliver them in case a total war breaks out. Such irrational thinking will only precipitate the nation’s self-destruction. As it appears, Kim’s actions are leading to an eventual major holocaust. In the process North Korea will surely be extinct but not before causing major casualty to humanity. According to US-Korea Institute at Hopkins University website 38 North, North Korea is “on track to the capability to strike targets in the region – including Japan – by 2020”. This means Japan shall be prepared to its own massive retaliation.
The complexity of power relations among stakeholders in the region is such that though China remains still North Korea’s main ally, it did not hesitate to join the US and other countries to support UN Security Council resolutions against North’s continuous provocative acts. At the same time it is angered by the moves of the US and South Korea in July to base the THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea. Japan is concerned that North Korea “poses a grave threat to Japan’s security” and is “an unforgivable act that damages regional peace and stability markedly”.
Notwithstanding Pyongyang’s antics, it is difficult to accept the theory floated by the recent report in the New Yorks Times that this provides an opportunity for Japan, South Korea and China to form an Asian unity because the issues are too complicated and many, not just North Korea. No sooner the New Yorks Times article appeared, two of Japan’s newspapers –The Japan Times and Yomiuri Shimbun – came out with editorials voicing opinion that the three countries – Japan, China and South Korea – should use this opportunity to not only improve ties but also to work for Asian unity. Even staff reporter of Christian Science Monitor David Iaconangelo wrote on 24 August after North Korea’s missile launch that the “Asian leaders have a fleeting moment of seeing eye-to-eye on a growing security concern in their region”. Such observations, howsoever positive intent may be, overlooks the harsh truth of historical narratives that are too complex to overrule the current argument.
A trilateral initiative between the three Asian countries is always welcome but to expect an immediate breakthrough on the contentious issue could be unrealistic. True, the foreign ministers of the three countries met in Tokyo in 2016 after such meeting were cancelled in 2013 and 2015. That was a positive sign for building bonhomie. China too joined 14 other countries at the United Nations Security Council supporting resolution for tougher sanctions against North Korea. Yet, to expect an immediate breakthrough would be unrealistic. North Korea is not the only issue that worries the three nations; there are other issues that are more serious that need to be addressed.