The Korean Peninsula in the Spotlight

Yohannan Chemarapally

NORTH and South Korea have been in the news a lot lately and mostly for the wrong reasons. Till recently, it was South Korea which was hogging most of the headlines due to the impeachment proceedings against the country’s president, Park Gyeun-hee on charges of corruption. The arrest of Jay Y Lee, the head of Samsung conglomerate, South Korea's biggest by far, on charges of bribing the country's top officials, including the president, is already having an impact on the country's booming economy. If the fortunes of Samsung are hit, the South Korean economy is sure to suffer. The conglomerate is the leading seller of smart phones and televisions in the world and its products account for a significant percentage of the country's huge export earnings.

Now there is added pressure on the South Korean economy with China, the country's leading trade partner, threatening to boycott South Korean products. Beijing was angered by the South Korean government's decision to install American surface-to-air Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) systems on its territory. This was done despite strong domestic discontent and vociferous protests from China. Opposition politicians in South Korea have already voiced their strong opposition to the proposed deployment of the anti-missile system in view of the fact that elections will be held in two months time. The opposition is favoured to win the elections. Opposition politicians have alleged that the United States wants to speed up the installation of the THAAD batteries before a new government takes over.

Beijing views the deployment very seriously. The THAAD system has a range of more than 200 kilometers and is designed to intercept incoming missiles. The system is also equipped with powerful radars, which according to Beijing, will pose a serious threat to China's coastal defense. Moscow has also indicated to Seoul that the deployment of THAAD missiles is detrimental to its security interests. Both Beijing and Moscow see the deployment as yet another illustration of the growing nexus between Washington, Seoul and Tokyo. China wants a unified response with Russia to confront what it calls “the US-Japan-South Korea anti missile network”. Japan has said that it too will be deploying the THAAD batteries on its soil. The South Korean government continues to insist that the sole purpose of the THAAD missiles is to deter missile attacks from the North. China sees the deployment as an important step in Washington's military pivot to the East and the attempt to encircle China.

The Global Times newspaper, which is close to the Chinese establishment, warned that South Korea should be ready to face serious consequences. The Peoples Daily, the paper of the Chinese Communist Party, went to the extent of calling for the cutting of the “de facto” diplomatic ties between the two countries and taking diplomatic and political measures against Seoul. China has already started discouraging Chinese tourists from going to South Korea. By the beginning of February, the numbers of Chinese tourists had already declined significantly. South Korea had become one of the favourite destinations for the big spending Chinese tourists. South Korean television serials and concerts by the country's K-Pop starts have been scrapped by China. Beijing has hinted that the Korean car industry could be next on the hit list if the lame duck government in Seoul insists on going ahead with the installation of the THAAD missiles.

China is also upset with North Korea for a variety of reasons. Beijing's calls for Pyongyang to exercise restraint in its nuclear and missile tests have had no impact. The Chinese government had openly called on the incoming Trump administration to start direct negotiations with the North Korean government on disarmament issues. But Pyongyang chose to test its new intermediate range nuclear capable missile when President Donald Trump was hosting the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe in the United States. Beijing may have its own suspicions on the circumstances related to the killing of Kim-Jong-nam, the half brother of the North Korean ruler, Kim Jong-un, under mysterious circumstances at a busy airport in the Malaysian capital, Kuala Lumpur. The finger of suspicion is on the North Korean government though Pyongyang vigorously denies the allegations of both homicide and the use of a banned chemical weapon. The estranged half brother of the North Korean leader was a resident in Macao which is a special administrative region of China.

China is one of the few remaining allies of the North Korean government besides being its largest trading partner. China's import of coal from the North was a key element in the sustenance of the country's economy. In the third week of February, Beijing announced that it was suspending the import of coal from North Korea. The Global Times said that the move would make it difficult for North Korea to exploit the differences among global powers on the issue of international sanctions on the country, aimed at curtailing its nuclear and missile programmes. In 2016, China had imported three times the amount of coal from North Korea than that was allowed under the UN sanctions regime. The sanctions allow exemptions if the trade benefits the livelihood of “ordinary North Koreans”.

With the public announcement that it was suspending the import of coal, a source of much needed hard currency, Beijing is sending a strong message to the current leadership in the North that its patience is running thin. The North dispatched a senior diplomat, Ri Kil-song to Beijing in a bid to iron out differences. He held talks with senior Chinese officials including the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi. In separate statements, the two sides stressed on the “traditional friendship” that has existed between the two countries.

One country with which North Korea's diplomatic ties seem to have been irretrievably damaged is with Malaysia. The Malaysian government ordered the expulsion of the North Korean ambassador, Kang Chol, from the country. Malaysia had demanded an apology from the diplomat for questioning the veracity of the findings of the probe into the death of Kim Jong-nam. North Korea has said that Kim died of a heart attack and had demanded that his body be immediately returned to his homeland. The North Koreans have been particularly dismissive of the charge that Kim was killed with a banned nerve agent, VX. South Korea had accused the North Korean government of masterminding the attack. The North Korean ambassador had charged that the Malaysian investigation into the case was politically motivated with the intention of tarnishing his country's image.

Pyongyang has demanded that Malaysia sent samples of the VX agent found on the dead man's body to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) for analysis. North Korean officials have not been allowed to conduct their own investigations by the authorities in Kuala Lumpur. In a statement issued in the first week of March, the North Koreans said that any conclusion on the use of chemical weapons should be made “only on the basis of identical results of analysis made by two specialist laboratories”. The statement warned “some countries” from using the incident for political purposes. The murder has been used by North Korea's many enemies to further vilify the country. The South Korean foreign minister, Yun Byung-se, accused the North of using chemical weapons to carry out the assassination while addressing the UNHCR conference in Geneva and suggested that North Korea's membership in the UN be suspended.

The Trump administration announced in the first week of March that it was canceling planned “back channel” talks with the North, effectively blocking meaningful negotiations with Pyongyang for the foreseeable future. Trump told the media that North Korea is “a world menace” that has to be “dealt with soon”. It has been revealed that Washington has a contingency plan for regime change by using military force against North Korea. Senior Trump administration officials have said that Washington considers North Korea and its nuclear programme as “the greatest immediate threat” to the security of the United States. The previous administration was also working overtime to undermine the “hermit state”.

Three years ago, the Obama administration launched a cyber programme aimed at crippling North Korea's missile programme and industrial sabotage. Iran was also a target. American and Israelis had used the “Stuxnet” virus to temporarily cripple Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme. After the cyber and electronic warfare programme against Pyongyang was launched, rockets and missiles tested by the North Koreans had tended to go off course or explode in mid air. The western media had blamed the mishaps on the lack of technical expertise on the part of the North Koreans. It is being claimed in Washington that the failures of North Korean missile tests was a result of deliberate American sabotage.

But with the successful testing of a new intermediate range missile, the North Koreans have regained the initiative. The Trump administration's focus now is to ensure that the North does not master ICBM technology. The February 12 missile test was a reflection of the North's advanced ballistic missile technology. Pyongyang claimed that the new intermediate range missile could carry a nuclear warhead. The North Korean leader in his New Year Speech had said that final preparations were on for the launch of an intercontinental missile.

The North has also proved that it is not a novice in cyber warfare. Its hacking of Sony Pictures is an illustration. 70 percent of company's computing system was destroyed. It has tried to disrupt the annual joint military exercises being conducted by the American and South Korean armies by jamming electronic signals for guided weapons. In the first week of March, North Korea launched four more ballistic missiles from its long range rocket site in Tongchang-ri. The launch was aimed to coincide with the ongoing US-South Korean military exercises. North Korea has described the military exercises as a drill for “nuclear war”.

Last year 3,00,000 South Korean and 27, 000 American troops participated in the military exercises. This year also, the military exercises are being conducted on a massive scale. A US aircraft carrier along with F-35B Stealth fighters are participating in the military exercises. In 2015, Washington and Seoul openly changed their military stance towards Pyongyang stating that the military exercises were no longer of a “defensive” nature. The focus of the recent military exercises have been on “pre-emptive” strikes against the North and on “decapitation raids” to take out the North's political and military leadership.

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